HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s democracy supporters were dealt a huge blow on Friday as authorities postponed local elections for a year because of the coronavirus, capping a devastating month of political disqualifications, arrests for social media posts and activists fleeing overseas.
The city’s democracy camp has come under sustained attack since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law last month — a move China’s leaders described as a “sword” hanging over the head of its critics.
The ensuing weeks have sent a chill through a city used to speaking its mind and supposedly guaranteed certain freedoms and autonomy in a “One Country, Two Systems” deal agreed ahead of its 1997 handover from Britain.
On Friday evening chief executive Carrie Lam, a pro-Beijing appointee, announced that September elections for the financial hub’s legislature would be delayed for a year using emergency anti-virus powers. She denied the move was a political decision to hobble the city’s opposition.
“I am only paying attention to the current pandemic situation,” she said. Beijing welcomed the move as “necessary, reasonable and legal”.
But the decision infuriated democracy supporters who had warned against any move to delay the polls, accusing authorities of using the Covid-19 pandemic to avoid a drubbing at the ballot box.
“This is a sleazy, contemptible political act to help thwart any victory on the part of the democrats in the original election,” opposition lawmaker Claudia Mo said, warning that public anger could explode.
The postponement came a day after a dozen prominent democracy activists were barred from standing for election because their political views were deemed unacceptable.
“Beyond any doubt (this) is the most scandalous election fraud era in Hong Kong history,” Joshua Wong, one of the city’s most recognisable democracy figures, told reporters Friday before the elections were postponed.
Wong was one of those disqualified, along with other young firebrand activists and some older, more moderate democracy campaigners.
Hong Kong is not a democracy — its leader is chosen by pro-Beijing committees.
But half of its legislature’s 70 seats are directly elected, offering the city’s 7.5 million residents a rare chance to have their voices heard at the ballot box.
Planning to capitalise on last year’s huge and often violent anti-Beijing protests, democracy activists had been hoping to win their first-ever majority in September.
But officials have begun scrubbing ballot lists of candidates. Examples given by authorities of unacceptable political views have included criticising the new security law, campaigning to win a legislation-blocking majority and refusing to recognise China’s sovereignty.
Earlier in the day a coalition of democracy parties warned any bid to delay the elections would herald “the complete collapse of our constitutional system”.
Around half of Hong Kong’s nearly 3,300 Covid-19 cases have been detected in the past month alone and authorities fear hospitals are on the verge of being overwhelmed.
Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2020