In the streets of Hong Kong, advertisements for the upcoming District Council Election are visible across the city. These promotions, ranging from posters in public housing estates to large billboards in shopping districts, are not placed by the candidates, however. Instead, it is the government that is promoting the election itself and encourage 4.3 million eligible voters to cast their ballot on December 10.
Hong Kongers are largely unimpressed. A recent survey suggested that less than half of the registered youth voters would cast their ballot. While there is no survey parsing the willingness to vote for the city’s entire population, another survey found that 63 percent of residents are not interested in politics.
In response, the regime appears to be making last-minute attempts to encourage people to stay in Hong Kong on election day. In late November, the city’s leader, John Lee, announced a citywide carnival to be held the day before the election, with outdoor music festivals, free entry to government-run museums, and a prize competition for students who engaged in community affairs with their parents.
At the same time, officials said in public that civil servants “are duty-bound to vote, and they should lead by example,” a subtle indication to all who work for the government that their actions on election day might be associated with their performance. Some units may have interpreted the message in a more extreme manner, resulting in actions like promoting the election in government-produced weather reports and switching the entire bureau’s computer screensavers to the election promotion poster.
Despite all this, Hong Kongers are expected to be apathetic toward the election, and the reason is apparent: The election is rigged.
Earlier this year, the city’s patriot-only legislature passed the “Improving Governance at the District Level” proposal. While one might expect such a law to mean better representation of the people in all 18 District Councils, it had the opposite effect. The number of directly elected seats was reduced from 452 to 88, with government appointees and government-led district committees slated to fill the remainder.
Also, candidates who intend to run for directly elected seats must obtain nominations from members of those district committees in order to be eligible to run. Any candidate can be disqualified from running if they have been found to be “unpatriotic” by the government-led eligibility committee. Above all, the chairperson of each District Council will be the district officer, the civil servant in charge of the district’s affairs. In the previous terms, the chairpersons of each council were elected from among councilors.
The upheaval of Hong Kong’s District Council system can be seen as a part of Beijing’s grand plan to crush dissenting voices since the enactment of the National Security Law in 2020. Officials in Beijing do not want a repeat of the results of the 2019 District Council Election, when 71 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots and pro-democracy candidates won 81 percent of the seats. The 2019 election was held at the height of the anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement that year, and pro-Beijing parties have repeatedly described that election as stolen.
Nevertheless, the so-called improved system is undoubtedly a democratic regression. While both Beijing and Hong Kong officials have claimed that the new system will ensure that the “patriotic administering Hong Kong” policy can be implemented at the district level, the overhaul effectively prevents pro-democracy party members and independents from running. Although some members of pro-democracy parties attempted to pursue nominations, none of them succeeded in securing them before the deadline.
The fact that zero pro-democracy candidates can participate in the local level elections is more than a punishment for their support, even in modest terms, of the city’s protests in 2019. It ensures that there will be no meaningful competition in terms of political ideology and policy proposals. All vetted candidates who are currently standing are either representing pro-Beijing parties or independents who have connections with government-appointed district committees. These candidates might claim that there is still diversity among the candidates for office, but voters will likely think otherwise.
The Beijing-vetted election also gives voters an impression of pork barrel politics. Seventy-five percent of direct-election candidates are members of the district committees, who can also decide who gets to run. Even if these candidates lose their bid to become district councilors, they will still retain their appointment in the district committees. As both District Councils and district committees are eligible to apply for the same pool of funds held by the district officers to organize events and programs, there’s an open possibility that candidates might achieve closed-door deals to lose strategically in exchange for cooperation in fund bidding.
While voters may see the irony of the stifled election, voicing dissent in the public domain could be costly. The Hong Kong authorities have amended laws to criminalize individuals calling for election boycotts or casting blank ballots. Such changes are a likely response to the global campaign for an election boycott that has been launched by pro-democracy activists living in exile. The courts have given several people suspended sentences for breaching this law since it came into effect in 2021. The government can also arrest and prosecute those calling for boycotts under the colonial-era law of seditious intention, a more severe charge that can be used along with the draconian National Security Law.
As a result, “lying flat” – choosing to ignore the election – has become an act of silent resistance for Hong Kongers. Whether going on a picnic in country parks or taking a weekend holiday outside Hong Kong on election day, supporters of the pro-democracy movement can avoid the government’s intensive advertisements and the campaign activities of Beijing-approved candidates. To them, no amount of spin can eliminate the fact that the election, compared to those held previously, is rigged.
Government officials may have downplayed the anticipated low turnout rate and dismissed any target of voters casting their ballots, but the figure will demonstrate the extent of discontent that remains in the city after the dismantlement of the pro-democracy movement.