Hong Kong rewrites district poll rules, citing 2019 protest vote 'disaster'

The new rules will ensure that only 'patriotic,’ pro-China candidates can run in local elections
By Lee Yuk Yue for RFA Cantonese
2023.05.04
Hong Kong rewrites district poll rules, citing 2019 protest vote 'disaster' Officials open a ballot box at a polling station in Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong, Nov. 24, 2019. Pro-democracy candidates won a landslide victory in the election.
Credit: Reuters

Hong Kong authorities have rewritten the electoral rules for the District Council, the city's last bastion of political opposition, amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent under a draconian security law, sparking criticism from exiled councilors who fled overseas.

Under the new rules, the number of directly elected seats on the council will be slashed from 95% to 20%, chief executive John Lee told a news conference on May 2.

"First of all, it is not the 2019 protests ... it's the attempt to cause disaster to Hong Kong society as a whole that we need to prevent," Lee said, citing the minority of frontline protesters who fought back against heavily armed riot police with Molotov cocktails, bricks and arrows, and "independence" activism, which wasn't a part of the protesters' demands.

"We have to bear that in mind so as to ensure that in the long run, the system will protect us from all this chaotic and harmful situation to arise again," said Lee, who was "elected" unopposed following changes to the electoral rules last year.

The change to the rules comes after millions of voters in Hong Kong delivered a stunning rebuke to Beijing and their own government with a landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates across the city's 18 district councils at the height of the 2019 protests.

Pro-democracy candidates won 388 seats, an overwhelming majority of the 452 council seats up for grabs, after 71 percent of registered voters -- nearly half the city's population -- turned out to vote in a poll that handed control of 17 out of 18 districts to pro-democracy groups.

Lee described that result as "a disaster" on Tuesday, saying that the new rules were designed to ensure that "the bad situation doesn't come back again."

‘Only patriots’

Exiled district councilors said the 2019 council had enjoyed the mandate of the people of Hong Kong, however.

"Over [their] 40-year history, the district councils have frequently discussed issues of a city-wide political nature, making it as a whole, a political organization with legitimate power to represent ... the people of Hong Kong," read a statement signed by dozens of exiled councilors.

They included former pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui, now in Australia, and former Wong Tai Sin councilor Carmen Lau, who has resettled in the United Kingdom.

ENG_CHN_DistrictElections_05032023.2.JPG
Pro-democratic winning candidates gather outside the campus of the Polytechnic University (PolyU) in Hong Kong, Nov. 25, 2019. Pro-democracy candidates won 388 seats, an overwhelming majority of the 452 council seats up for grabs. Credit: Reuters

The government said it would also set up a vetting committee for candidates in forthcoming District Council elections, with only candidates approved as "patriotic" allowed to stand.

The Communist Party-backed Global Times newspaper said the moves would ensure that "only patriots govern the city."

‘Great step backwards’

Current affairs commentator Johnny Lau said Beijing is clearly looking to wield "watertight" political control in Hong Kong.

"Hong Kong's electoral system has become just like that of the mainland in recent years," Lau said. "They are just allowing a tiny number of voting opportunities to citizens to make it look like democracy, but in essence, it's a very long way from most people's understanding of democracy."

Democratic Party Chairman Law Kin-hee said he was "very disappointed" with the move, which he described as a "great step backwards" for democracy in Hong Kong.

ENG_CHN_DistrictElections_05032023.3.JPG
Voters queue up outside a polling station during district council local elections in Hong Kong, Nov. 24, 2019. Nearly half the city's population turned out to vote. Credit: Reuters

Cyrus Chan, who heads the district-level pro-democracy group Concern Group for Tseung Kwan O People's Livelihood, called the new system "absurd," and "worse than under the British."

"I didn't expect that such a small proportion of seats would be directly elected," Chan said, adding that mergers of constituencies also made it harder for community-based groups to fight local election campaigns.

"One constituency is equivalent to 10 constituencies under the old system, which isn't do-able, logistically or financially," he said.

Shatin District Council chairman Chris Mak said only candidates with considerable political capital, connections and financial resources would be able to run under the new system.

"First, [candidates] will need excellent community relations, and second, they'll need huge amounts of support," Mak said. "In the past, anyone could be a district councilor if they served the public well, but this has now been completely distorted."

He said there would also be fewer channels through which citizens could monitor what their government was up to, under the new system.

"Elected district councilors were used as a channel to monitor and communicate with the government, but the government has destroyed that," Mak said. "Even popular candidates will need to build relationships with different stakeholders and get government support, which will discourage a lot of people from running."

He said directly elected councilors are typically far more popular among local voters than appointees, and that the sheer size of the new constituencies will make it harder for councilors to serve their communities properly.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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