Hong Kong primaries: China declares pro-democracy polls ‘illegal’

China has declared primaries held by Hong Kong’s pro-democratic parties on the weekend “illegal” and the city’s leader has announced an investigation, saying that the candidates’ intention to vote against government legislation could break national security laws.

The primary polls, while not a formal part of Hong Kong’s election process, drew an estimated 600,000 people out to vote for democracy candidates ahead of the legislative council elections scheduled for September.

The extraordinary turnout in the face of warnings by authorities was interpreted by observers as an act of opposition to the national security laws imposed by Beijing on 30 June.

As the pro-democracy protest movement continued throughout 2019 and an unprecedented number of pro-democracy candidates were voted in at district council elections, there has been growing confidence that the pro-Beijing members in the legislative council (LegCo) could be sent into minority. With the primaries, organisers sought to determine a shortlist of candidates to avoid splitting the votes.

Late on Monday Beijing’s top representatives in Hong Kong labelled the primaries “illegal” and accused organisers of colluding with foreign powers in a “serious provocation” of Hong Kong’s electoral system and to seize the private data of voters.

“The goal of organiser Benny Tai and the opposition camp is to seize the ruling power of Hong Kong and … carry out a Hong Kong version of ‘colour revolution’,” said a spokesman for the Liaison Office, whose chief is also in charge of implementing the national security laws.

The statement came in support of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, who said that democrats coordinating to win a majority and veto the government’s budget could be against the anti-sedition laws, and would be be investigated.

“If this so-called ‘primary’ election’s purpose is to achieve the ultimate goal of delivering what they call a ‘35+’ [majority seats] with the objective of objecting to, resisting every policy initiative of the Hong Kong SAR government, then it may fall into the category of subverting the state power, which is now one of the four types of offences under the new national security law,” Lam told media late on Monday.

She stressed that she wasn’t saying the primaries did breach the law, but warned if an investigation proved as much “there is certainly a case to answer”.

Government investigators will refer any findings to authorities.

Lam also said the government had received “a large number of complaints” about the primaries, including concerns that they breached social distancing rules, and that holding such polls before the election period began was “unfair”.

Legal scholar and an organiser of the primaries and the 2014 Occupy Central protests, Benny Tai, said LegCo’s power to veto the budget was enshrined in Hong Kong’s mini constitution, the Basic Law.

“How can a power that is recognised by the Basic Law be breaching the national security law?”

Tai predicted as many as 45 seats could be won by pro-democracy candidates in September, and on Tuesday he said they had worked “a miracle” but he was wary of backlash from those in power.

“Everyone must be mentally prepared.”

Preliminary results from the primary polls showed favourable results for candidates who were younger, pro-self determination or localist, and those who had high profiles during the protest movement, including Joshua Wong.

The push-back from Lam and Beijing has bolstered dismissals of their repeated reassurances the law would only affect a “small minority” of criminal people in the city.

The laws, which were not made public until they were in force, outlawed acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, but have been labeled so broadly and in such an ill-defined way as to criminalise the most benign of acts, and to outlaw freedom of expression and the press.

On the first full day under the laws several people were arrested for offences including carrying a pro-independence flag.

Last week Hong Kong schools were told children could not form human chains or sing Glory to Hong Kong, a song which had become an unofficial anthem of the protest movement. Performances of songs from the French revolution musical, Les Miserables, may also be banned, depending on the intention of the performance.