China denounces ‘illegal’ Hong Kong primary as results show strong support for pro-democracy activists

·4-min read
People queue up to vote in Hong Kong on Sunday in an unofficial primary for pro-democracy candidates ahead of legislative elections in September: AP
People queue up to vote in Hong Kong on Sunday in an unofficial primary for pro-democracy candidates ahead of legislative elections in September: AP

Chinese officials have stepped up their criticism of a vote held over the weekend to select candidates for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition, saying the ballot may be in breach of new national security laws.

Initial results from the primary election showed strong performances for younger, more radical anti-Beijing activists, collectively referred to as “localists”, while some veteran pro-democracy politicians lost out.

Organisers said around 610,000 people voted on Saturday and Sunday, mostly using a bespoke mobile app but with some also lining up to cast paper ballots at stations manned by thousands of volunteers.

Prospective candidates came from a host of opposition parties and though the polls are not legally binding, they will be used to select the pro-democracy politicians with the best chance of winning seats on Hong Kong’s devolved assembly, the Legislative Council, in September elections.

In a statement released late on Monday night by Beijing’s top representative office in Hong Kong, China claimed the unofficial primary would “damage the fairness and impartiality of the [September] election”.

“It is a serious provocation to the current election system,” a spokesperson for the Hong Kong Liaison Office said.

The pro-democracy opposition hopes to win at least the 35 seats required for a majority in the Legislative Council, which would give it the power to stall budgets and frustrate the workings of Carrie Lam’s executive.

Beijing’s Liaison Office directed most of its anger at law professor Benny Tai, one of the co-founders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests in Hong Kong and a co-organiser of the weekend’s ballot.

The statement claimed it was “typical” of Tai to be suspected of “breaking the law” - in this case at least two clauses of the new national security bill - implying that “foreign forces” helped arrange the primary.

"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 'color revolution'," the statement said.

Among those who said they received a “strong mandate” were the activist Joshua Wong, who wrote on Facebook that he had topped the poll in his Kowloon East district with just over 30,000 electronic votes.

With some paper votes still being counted, he was around 8,000 votes ahead of second-placed candidate, a sitting Legislative Council member from the more established Civic Party.

“The victory of movement activists in the primary implies the continuation of the spirit of our resistance against China’s growing curbs over the city’s freedoms,” Wong wrote.

The 23-year-old ran without a party affiliation after his Demosisto group was disbanded by its members on the day China passed the controversial new national security law, which defines and bans subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign collusion. Activist leaders said some elements of the law appeared tailor-made to outlaw their activities.

Another former leader of Demosisto, Nathan Law, was not in Hong Kong for the primary. He revealed on Twitter that he is now in London, having fled a week and a half ago.

Like Wong, Law rose to prominence during the 2014 protests and was at the forefront of demonstrations against an unpopular proposed extradition law last year.

He wrote on Twitter that he was staying in a “little apartment” in the UK capital and that he had met some reporters. At the start of the month he testified about the situation in Hong Kong to a US congressional committee, appearing virtually from a then-undisclosed location.

Law explained that he had kept his whereabouts secret to “mitigate the risks” in the aftermath of Beijing passing its new Hong Kong law, adding that he had put himself in “danger” by continuing to speak out. “We don't even know if our next protest, next court hearing, will be followed by imprisonment,” he said.

Also on Monday, Sweden joined France and Germany in pushing for a united EU response to China’s moves in Hong Kong, with Swedish foreign minister Anne Linde saying “we need to react to what is happening”.

After a meeting in Brussels, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said foreign ministers had agreed “to develop a coordinated European Union response to show support for Hong Kong’s autonomy and civil society”. He told reporters nothing had yet been decided, however, and that the response would stop short of economic sanctions.

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