Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has arrived in Beijing to report on the territory’s first legislative elections held under new laws ensuring that only “patriots” loyal to the ruling Chinese Communist Party could run as candidates.
As expected, Sunday’s elections for the 90-seat Legislative Council were swept by party-backed politicians who beat the dwindling number of moderates and independents.
Leading figures in the pro-democracy opposition have been intimidated into silence, jailed or forced into exile.
Just 20 of the seats were directly elected, while 40 were filled by members of a Beijing-appointed committee that selects the territory’s chief executive.
Ms Lam said she was satisfied with the election, despite a 30.2% voter turnout – the lowest since the UK handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997.
All candidates were vetted by a largely pro-Beijing committee before they could be nominated and several were disqualified over statements or actions in the past.
The elections had been postponed for a year – ostensibly due to a spike in Covid-19 cases – after the opposition swept elections for district councillors.
The polls also followed widespread and increasingly violent anti-government protests in 2019 that prompted China’s rubber-stamp legislature to impose a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong, followed by a reorganisation of the electoral process and transformation of the make-up of the Legislative Council to stack it with pro-Beijing loyalists.
The opposition camp criticised the elections, with the largest pro-democracy party, the Democratic Party, fielding no candidates for the first time since the 1997 handover.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Monday there were “multiple reasons” for the decline in voter turnout.
“It is not only the impact of the pandemic, but also the disruption and sabotage of anti-China elements in Hong Kong and external forces,” Mr Zhao said at a daily briefing.
Some overseas pro-democracy activists, including London-based Nathan Law, had urged a boycott of the vote, saying the elections were undemocratic.
Under the new election laws, incitement to boycott the voting or to cast invalid votes could be punished by up to three years in jail and a 200,000 Hong Kong dollar (£20,000) fine.
Prior to her departure for Beijing, Ms Lam, who is under a US visa ban, said she expected to “cover a wide range of issues on this particular duty visit because through two very decisive acts of the central authorities, Hong Kong is now back on the right track of ‘one country, two systems'” – referring to the increasingly threadbare framework by which Hong Kong was to retain its own political, social and financial institutions for 50 years after the handover.
In a joint statement released by US secretary of state Antony Blinken, the foreign ministers of Australia, the UK, Canada, New Zealand and the US expressed “grave concern” over the erosion of democratic elements of Hong Kong’s electoral system and growing restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly.
“Protecting space for peaceful alternative views is the most effective way to ensure the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong,” they said.