The Beijing cabinet-level office responsible for Hong Kong described Sunday’s district council elections in the city as “fair, just, lively and orderly” and imbued with positive energy. For Hong Kong’s chief executive John Lee the vote “fully shows our excellent election culture, and highlights the revamped district council system as being far superior”.
Most of Hong Kong’s voters took a different view, with almost three out of four staying at home on Sunday so that the turnout of 27.54 per cent was the lowest in any election since Britain returned the city to China in 1997. The low turnout is especially striking when compared with the last district council elections in 2019, which saw a record 71.23 per cent of registered voters cast a ballot.
Four years ago pro-democracy candidates won almost 400 of the 452 seats, taking control of 17 out of 18 district councils. The following year Beijing imposed a National Security Law that all but crushed dissent in Hong Kong, seeing thousands arrested and hundreds imprisoned as tens of thousands emigrated.
Sunday’s vote was held under new rules that saw only 20 per cent of seats directly elected and only “patriots” loyal to Beijing allowed to stand. Prospective candidates also needed nominations from government-appointed local committees, a hurdle no opposition candidate was able to cross.
Radical pro-democracy activists made no attempt to get on to the ballot, sometimes accusing the moderates who did try to stand of legitimising a corrupt anti-democratic process. But the authorities saw even the most moderate opposition figures, who fully accept Hong Kong’s status as part of China, as a threat to the new order in the city.
The liberal Third Side, which calls for a “third path” to democracy between the pro-democracy and pro-Beijing camps, also failed to get a candidate on to the ballot. And Roundtable, a pro-establishment group founded by a local businessman, only saw one of its five prospective candidates given the nod by the nominating committees.
Participation in Sunday’s elections might have been higher if some opposition candidates had been allowed to stand. But faced with a choice between a light touch and the heavy hand, the current leadership in Hong Kong habitually chooses the second. Sunday’s low turnout was, despite the brave face put on it by Beijing and the Hong Kong government, a rejection of the legitimacy of the new system. And it shows that if the majority in the city which favours democracy is now a silent one, it has not gone away.