Hong Kongers vote in 1st election since security-law crackdown, but opposition has little chance to make gains

With candidates limited to "true patriots" and the number of popularly elected seats reduced to from half to less than a quarter, Hong Kong's opposition has little hope of making inroads this Sunday when the city's residents head to the polls for the first time since the 2019 crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

Pro-democracy activists are urging voters in Sunday's election to spoil ballots or stay home

A man walks past government banners for the upcoming Legislative Council election in Hong Kong's Admiralty area on Thursday. The election is Sunday, but the opposition is calling for a boycott because of recent changes that reduced the number of popularly elected councillors to just 20 out of 90 seats, with the rest chosen by Beijing-designated electors. (Bertha Wang/AFP/Getty Images)

For those wandering the steamy streets of Hong Kong these days, democracy seems to stare them in the face. Election posters cover buildings. Candidates smile and wave from subway entrances. Radio and TV ads beckon voters. 

Millions are being called to cast ballots this weekend, in the first Legislative Council elections since Hong Kong exploded with anti-China street demonstrations in 2019 and Beijing responded with an unprecedented crackdown.

With its British colonial past and officially "semi-autonomous" status within China, Hong Kong used to pride itself on offering more freedoms than anywhere else controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, and on its vibrant history of free speech and political opposition.

Not so any more, says Ted Hui, a former opposition member of the city's Legislative Council. 

He calls Sunday's vote "a parody" of an election and part of Beijing's strategy of eliminating any opposition voices while trying to appear democratic. He's called for a boycott.

Under a sweeping overhaul of Hong Kong's election law this spring, only candidates pre-approved by the Chinese government as "true patriots" are allowed to run. 

A woman walks past campaign posters for candidates Edward Leung-hei and Jason Poon in Hong Kong's North Point area. The South China Morning Post estimates that only three out of 153 candidates in Sunday's election identify as 'pro-democratic.' (Bertha Wang/AFP/Getty Images)

The number of directly elected council members was also reduced — from half to less than a quarter (just 20 out of 90 seats) — while the rest are being chosen by Beijing-designated electors.

This has left only three eligible candidates who identify as "pro-democratic" out of 153, the South China Morning Post estimated

It means there is now no way opposition candidates in the city of 7.5 million can win enough seats to control the council and challenge the Chinese Communist Party, something opinion polls predicted could have happened if Beijing had not made the changes.

Former pro-democracy council members facing charges

Hui fled Hong Kong with his family last December, as the crackdown on pro-democracy activists was intensifying. He is one of at least four former members of the council who represented now largely defunct democratic parties and who are now in self-exile in different corners of the world. 

Former lawmaker and a member of the pro-democracy opposition Ted Hui speaks to the media as he leaves a police station on Nov. 18, 2020, following his arrest in connection with the throwing of foul-smelling objects inside the city's legislature. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

Most of their colleagues from the council who stayed behind, as well as other high profile democracy activists, were arrested and charged with "conspiring to commit subversion" under China's expansive 2020 national security law. They are facing trial for participating in party primaries in preparation for these elections, most locked up in jail awaiting trial. 

In an interview from his new home in Adelaide, Australia, Hui said he "didn't have a choice" but to leave.

"My family was being stalked and followed by the Hong Kong regime," he said. 

He described early morning raids by police at his home and being taken away in handcuffs to face accusations in court. 

"Every moment could be your last moment of freedom."

Employees pose for a photograph outside of the Apple Daily offices on June 24, 2021, the day the tabloid ceased publication. The paper decided to shut down in face of government raids alleging it had breached a controversial national security law. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

In Hong Kong, official intimidation of critics in advance of the election has been wide-reaching. 

Last summer, the tabloid Apple Daily, the most prominent opposition media outlet, was forced out of business by the government. 

Earlier this week, its founder, Jimmy Lai, and seven others were sentenced to up to 14 months in prison for organizing a June vigil to remember the hundreds of people killed by Chinese soldiers during the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. 

The commemoration used to be held every year in Hong Kong until it was banned in 2020 by police under COVID-19 restrictions. This, at the same time as Beijing was introducing its national security law.

'It is beyond painful'

Now, any criticism of China or the Hong Kong government is rare. In a city where two million people demonstrated two years ago, and opposition candidates dominated local council elections in late 2019, today, the authorities have made protests almost unimaginable.

"What was once a liberal, free society is now gone, and they have successfully driven the fear into the life and heart of that city," said Dennis Kwok, another former council member who fled Hong Kong. "Anyone who speaks out about politics in a way that displeases the authority will face very serious consequences."

'What was once a liberal, free society is now gone,' says former legislator Dennis Kwok, seen chairing a meeting in the Legislative Council in April 2020. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Kwok was one of four Legislative Council members ousted from the legislature last November after the passage of a resolution disqualifying lawmakers who support independence or are deemed "unpatriotic." The remaining 15 members of the pro-democracy caucus resigned in protest.

Kwok flew from Hong Kong to Vancouver earlier this year with his family. He is Canadian-born, though he renounced his citizenship as a condition of taking office in 2012. In his first interview since settling down in North America, he spoke emotionally about the colleagues he left behind.

Pro-democracy lawmakers join hands at the start of a press conference in a Legislative Council office in Hong Kong on Nov. 11, 2020. The lawmakers resigned en masse after China gave the city the power to disqualify politicians deemed a threat to national security and four of their colleagues were ousted. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

"This is very personal for me and my friends," he said. "You can't even use the word painful to describe what's going on; it is beyond painful. It is absolutely devastating to see that happening to your hometown."

Hong Kong's leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, defends the new electoral law as "reasonable and fundamental."

In an interview on Chinese state TV, she said it is "about ensuring that only patriots have the chance to administer" the territory, not about excluding other political views. For her, she said, a patriot is someone who believes "it is good for the People's Republic of China to resume exercising sovereignty" over Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam delivers her annual policy address at the Legislative Council on Oct. 6. (Lam Yik/CBC)

Calls to spoil ballots condemned by officials

Still, all of this has made officials worry that voters will ignore or boycott the election, or spoil their ballots, sending an embarrassing message to the government in Hong Kong and the Communist Party in Beijing. 

From Australia, Hui has advised Hong Kongers to cast just this kind of "protest vote," prompting the Hong Kong government to issue a warrant for his arrest. One official said Hui's encouragement amounted to "an act of rebellion" that may violate the national security law. 

Partly to prevent spoiled votes, ballots now have to be submitted unfolded.

Election-related signage can be seen all over the city ahead of Sunday's vote. Eager to turn out the vote and make the election look legitimate, the government has been condemning calls for a boycott. (Bertha Wang/AFP/Getty Images)

Hong Kong has also threatened the Wall Street Journal with legal action for an editorial that publicized calls for voter disobedience.

"The Communist Party is worried," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of Chinese politics at Hong Kong Baptist University. 

Leaders in Beijing and Hong Kong "need this to look like an election," he said, "as an act of political legitimization."

China has been scolded by Britain, who formerly controlled the territory, for "radical," unilateral changes to election rules that break treaty promises made by Beijing when Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control in 1997. At the time, China's leaders signed declarations vowing to work toward giving Hong Kongers true universal suffrage and eventually allowing them to directly elect their top leadership. 

An election next to Victoria Harbour. (Lam Yik/Reuters)

"The erosion of liberty in Hong Kong is an affront to freedom and democracy," said U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss this week.

This election confirms that "we are really in an authoritarian environment, which is very new to Hong Kong," said Cabestan. "The political life which we used to see and witnessed in Hong Kong has disappeared."


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.