Local Elections Marked, on December 10, 2023, Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee assists with the pouring of votes from a ballot box at a polling site in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s ‘Patriots Only’ Local Elections Marked
The arrests of several pro-democracy protesters, combined with a record-low turnout on Sunday in Hong Kong’s first district elections in four years–a period marked by Beijing’s tightening grip on the city’s government and freedoms, as well as the systematic suppression of opposition or dissent–are the latest signs of widespread discontent and rising apathy in the semi-autonomous Chinese enclave.
Regardless of efforts by the government and pro-Beijing businesses to encourage voter turnout, as well as a 90-minute extension of voting hours due to a technical glitch, only 27.54% of the city’s 4.3 million registered voters cast a ballot–a far cry from the 71.23% turnout in the previous district elections, held at the height of the city’s mass protests in 2019, when voters overwhelmingly signaled their support for the pro-democracy movement.
District council elections, in which residents elect officials to manage mostly municipal matters, were once among the most democratic in the city. However, since Beijing implemented a broad national security statute in 2020, elections in the enclave have experienced substantial changes, with an overarching order to ensure that only “patriots” are appointed to government positions.
In May 2023, the district council election system was the last to be modified. Hong Kong’s chief executive, John Lee, who took office last year and has overseen the city’s transition towards Beijing’s control, announced new rules that reduced the number of councilors directly elected by the public from more than 90% to less than 20% and required candidates to be vetted by national security background checks and nominated by pro-government committees, effectively barring anyone deemed disloyal to Beijing.
On Sunday, police deployed almost 10,000 officers to avoid potential protests. According to authorities, several arrests were made, including three Hong Kong League of Social Democrats activists who planned but were unable to carry out a protest demonstration, and at least four individuals who allegedly incited others to cast invalid votes or not vote via the Internet.
Lee told local reporters after voting on Sunday that the redesigned district council election was “the last piece of the puzzle to implement the principle of patriots governing Hong Kong.”
“Today’s district councils are no longer the district councils of the past platforms for sabotaging and resisting the governance authority of the [Hong Kong] government, advocating ‘Hong Kong independence’ and endangering national security,” Lee said in a statement.
Lee said in a message to the election winners on Monday that the recent elections were “high-quality” and “met the objectives of being conducted in a fair, just, clean, safe, and orderly manner overall, fully demonstrating an election culture of excellence and the superiority of the reformed [district councils] system.”
According to TIME, John P. Burns, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Hong Kong, the government’s acceptance of low voter turnout is “disturbing.”
“What it means is that they don’t care what the 70% of the people care about or are thinking,” he said. “One of the most important functions of district councils is to canvass public opinion in the districts and relay it to the government.”
So, if this is not done consistently, the government will have no understanding of what the people of Hong Kong are thinking and will not be able to make policy that fulfills the people’s expectations. And this is a risky situation that might lead to instability.”