On Saturday, a symphony mobile notifications rang across Hong Kong as residents were sent text messages reminding them that they had to vote in the legislative elections. But most Hong Kongers chose to stay away from the “patriots only” election Sunday—the first since Beijing revamped the semi-autonomous territory’s electoral system to allow only those loyal to China to run.
Experts and many pro-democracy leaders believe that low voter turnout can be directly linked to the absence of any meaningful opposition. Several dozen pro-democracy activists are currently in prison, while others fled. Other people declined to take part in the election.
The May election overhaul was approvedThis also means that voters are less likely to choose who is elected as Hong Kong’s governor. Both the number and proportion of directly elected seats in the city’s legislative council, commonly known as “LegCo,” was reduced. Originaly, 35 out of 70 chamber seats were selected by voters. Now, they choose 20 of the 90 available seats. Special interest groups, Beijing loyalists and other special interests select the remaining lawmakers. Candidates must also be vetted and approved by a government committee—ensuring that “patriots only” were on the ballot.
But despite efforts by the Hong Kong government to get people to the polls—including a $430,000 ad campaign in local newspapers and free public transportation on election day—many Hong Kongers stayed away from the city’s first “patriots only” election.
About 30% of Hong Kong’s 4.5 million registered voters cast ballots for LegCo—lower than the previous record of 43% in 2000. Comparatively, 58% is more.The last LegCo election in 2016 saw a record number of registered voters turn out. Over 70% of registered voters participated in the November 2019 elections for the local districts councils.
Officials were strict about following the directives. Anyone who said that Hong Kongers shouldn’t vote in this election. Earlier this month, a senior Hong Kong official threatened “necessary action” against the Wall Street JournalOver an op-ed that said boycotts and blank ballots “are one of the last ways for Hong Kongers to express their political views.” Ahead of the election at least 10 personsFor allegedly encouraging people not to vote, or casting invalid votes, they were detained.
Dennis Kwok, who served as a pro-democracy legislator from 2012 to 2020, tells TIME that many Hong Kongers don’t feel the new system has credibility. “They locked up all candidates and changed the rules,” says Kwok, who was unseated in 2020 after China’s top legislative body Adopted a resolution that allowed local officials to remove “unpatriotic” lawmakers. He now serves as a Harvard Kennedy School senior associate. “Hong Kong people feel there is no point in participating,” he says.
However, Chief Executive Carrie Lam told the Global, a Chinese tabloid run by state officials, that she was not involved in this matter. TimesLow turnout was a sign of weakness before the elections. “There is a saying that when the government is doing well and its credibility is high, the voter turnout will decrease because the people do not have a strong demand to choose different lawmakers to supervise the government,” she said.
Rejigging the electoral system was part a response to peaceful protests that started in summer 2019. The demonstrations morphed into violent street battles, which threw the city into chaos, frequently shuttering businesses, choking traffic and shutting down public transport—even briefly forcing the closure of the city’s international airport. Protesters set fire to pro-Beijing business and then broke into the LegCo chamber and damaged it.
Beijing’s clampdown also saw the imposition in June 2020 of the sweeping National Security Law that criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with penalties of up to life imprisonment. More than 150 people have been arrested under the law, including dozens of democratic lawmakers who participated in unofficial pre-election primaries in July 2020—declared illegal under the law.
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The September 2020 election had been originally planned, but due to COVID-19 concerns, the government delayed it for more than a full year. Hong Kong is currently one of the few places in the world with zero locally transmitted COVID-19 cases—thanks to stringent entry requirements, including 21 days of hotel quarantine.
Officials also defended the new electoral system—saying the rules were needed to keep Hong Kong secure. During the protests, tensions flared inside LegCo, leading to deadlocks and in one instance, a physical fight, as lawmakers scrambled to physically take control of the chairperson’s seat for a key legislative committee. One pro-democracy legislator dropped a box of rotting plants inside the chamber as it was being debated about controversial legislation regarding national anthem.
Xia Baolong, the director of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said on Dec. 6 that Hong Kongers had wasted time “blindly seeking Western-style democracy.” “It brought social divisions, vicious fights, causing crises such as a disorderly society, an imbalanced economy and ineffective governance,” he said.
Beijing published a report Monday following the election, stating that the reforms were successful and would help ensure long-term democracy development in Hong Kong.