HONG KONG: The democracy movement in Hong Kong was dealt another 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.
Concerns about the rule of law in the territory are also mounting, following the resignation of the head of public prosecutions, who complained he had been sidelined by his boss from cases under the new China-imposed national security legislation.
The democracy camp has come under sustained attack since Beijing imposed the sweeping security law last month — a move China’s leaders described as a “sword” hanging over the heads of its critics.
The ensuing weeks have sent a chill through people in a city used to speaking their minds and supposedly guaranteed certain freedoms and autonomy under 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 the Sept 6 elections for the Legislative Council would be delayed for a year using emergency anti-virus powers. She denied the move was a political decision to hobble the 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 told AFP, warning that public anger could explode.
The postponement came a day after a dozen prominent democracy activists including Joshua Wong 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,” Wong, one of the city’s most recognisable democracy figures, told reporters on Friday before the elections were postponed.
Hong Kong is not a democracy — its leader is chosen by pro-Beijing committees. But half of the legislature’s 70 seats are directly elected, offering 7.5 million residents a rare chance to have their voices heard at the ballot box, something that is off-limits to their mainland peers.
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”.
But officials point out that around half of Hong Kong’s nearly 3,300 Covid-19 cases have been detected in the past month alone, and they fear hospitals are on the verge of being overwhelmed.
According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, at least 68 elections worldwide have been postponed because of the virus, while 49 went ahead.
Beijing said the new security law would restore stability and not affect political freedoms.
It targets four types of crime — subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces — with up to life in prison.
But the broadly worded law instantly outlawed certain political views such as promoting independence or greater autonomy for Hong Kong.
One provision bans “inciting hatred” toward the government.
Since it came into force, some political parties have disbanded while at least three prominent Beijing critics have fled overseas.
Libraries and schools have pulled books deemed to be in breach of the new law.
At least 15 arrests have been made so far. On Wednesday four students were arrested under the new law for “inciting secession” through posts on social media.
Meanwhile, the head of public prosecutions has quit, citing differences with the city’s top legal official, and after being sidelined from cases under the new legislation, according to an email obtained by Reuters.
The resignation is seen as a sign of discomfort within the government regarding the new arrangements.
David Leung, who heads the Department of Justice and who recently led a high-profile public prosecution against pro-democracy leaders involved with the 2014 Occupy Central protests, wrote in the email that he could no longer work with Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng.
“It is most unfortunate that I do not see eye to eye with the SJ (Secretary for Justice) on the running of PD (Prosecutions Division), and the situation has not improved with the passage of time,” he wrote.
Cheng’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Local media reported that Cheng had confirmed Leung’s resignation.
Leung added in his email that for national security cases that had arisen since the laws took effect on June 30 he had no knowledge of the proceedings.
Leading Hong Kong lawyers have already warned of a stark new era of mainland justice. Hong Kong’s proudly independent judiciary, one of many freedoms guaranteed when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule 23 years ago, has long been considered key to its success as a global financial hub.
A source with direct knowledge of the matter said it was “shocking” that the head of Hong Kong’s prosecutions division could be sidelined in this manner.
“He’s been completely cut out from national security matters,” said the source, who declined to be named given the sensitivity of the matter.
“Yet these are prosecutions in Hong Kong, and he’s the head of public prosecutions. It undermines the rule of law … and established practices,” the source added.