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Despite the summer heat, pandemic warnings, and government threats, more than 600,000 Hong Kongers headed to polling stations last month for the pro-democracy camp’s primaries. The unofficial poll selected the opposition candidates who would run in the Sept. 6 Legislative Council (LegCo) elections. Organizers cheered the unexpectedly large turnout, calling it a referendum on a new sweeping national security law.
But on July 31, the government quashed any hopes for change through elections when Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the LegCo election would be postponed for one year ostensibly due to coronavirus concerns. But most believe the real reason for the delay is political: A day earlier, authorities also barred a dozen opposition candidates from running for the LegCo, including activist Joshua Wong.
“Not wanting to lose another election, the pro-government forces have, in effect, canceled it,” wrote pro-democracy lawmaker Fernando Cheung in a New York Times op-ed. Cheung cited the opposition’s landslide victory in last November’s District Council election and the strong turnout in the July primaries, which would have ended favorably for the pro-democracy camp vying for a majority in the legislature. (The public elects 35 of the 70 seats, and special-interest groups—many of which are pro-Beijing—select the other 35.)
The move is the latest blow to freedom in Hong Kong since Beijing imposed a national security law on June 30, which vastly reduced the scope for dissent. Even chanting or displaying protest slogans violates the law that criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign interference. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment.
Postponing this year’s election produces a “dangerous legislative void” and “gutting dilemma” for pro-democracy legislators, Cheung explained. Questions remain if the four lawmakers who were among the barred pro-democracy candidates would be allowed to continue serving during the interim legislature. Authorities claimed the 12 were disqualified for objecting to the national security law, lobbying foreign governments to sanction Hong Kong, and intending to use filibusters to achieve protest demands.
Without those four, the pro-democracy camp would be down to 20, less than the one-third needed to secure veto power to block controversial bills. An example of one such bill: A pro-establishment leader proposed setting up polling stations in major cities in mainland China to let Hong Kongers there vote. This would unfairly favor pro-Beijing groups: Opposition parties would be unable to campaign or send promotional material into the mainland.
The Hong Kong government has also asked Beijing’s top legislative body to settle the legal questions stemming from the deferred election, which the Hong Kong Bar Association says “degrades the rule of law in Hong Kong.” In a statement, the group insisted the issues should be resolved with the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. Moreover, Lam’s postponement of the election by invoking the emergency regulations may prove unlawful.
“There is no valid reason for such a lengthy delay,” said U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a statement. “It is likely, therefore, that Hong Kong will never again be able to vote—for anything or anyone.” The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Lam and 10 other top leaders on Aug. 7 for undermining the city’s autonomy. The move, which includes seizing their U.S. property and freezing their financial assets, is largely symbolic since Lam has said she does not have assets in the U.S. and doesn’t plan to move there.
The election suspension came amid a flurry of arrests under the new national security law: Police arrested Jimmy Lai, publisher of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, along with six others at the publication on Aug. 10 for allegedly colluding with foreign forces. In recent weeks, police also arrested four student members of a pro-independence group over online posts and issued arrest warrants for six overseas democracy activists, including American citizen Samuel Chu.
On Aug. 3, during a livestreamed prayer meeting put on by the Hong Kong Pastors Network, Pastor Paul Ma addressed the crackdowns spreading across the city. He reminded Christians they are “more than conquerors” in Christ and that Jesus loves Hong Kong.
In the broadcast, which has accumulated 11,000 views, Ma referenced Romans 8 to assure believers: “Who shall separate us from this love? Shall tribulation, or distress, or the national security law, or Cultural Revolution 2.0, or the cancellation of elections? Nothing will be able to separate us from this love. Nothing will be able to separate us from the love for Hong Kong. Nothing will be able to separate us from true love.”