China accused organizers of an unofficial primary in Hong Kong of violating the city’s new national security law, signaling that authorities may use the measure to prosecute or disqualify opposition figures ahead of upcoming legislative elections.
China’s top agency in Hong Kong denounced the event drawing more than 600,000 voters as “illegal” in a statement released late Monday, accusing organizers of receiving support of “foreign forces.” The Liaison Office specifically condemned organizer Benny Tai, saying his goal was “to seize the power of governance in Hong Kong and stage the Hong Kong version of a ‘color revolution’.”
The city’s pro-democracy bloc held the primary on Saturday and Sunday in an effort to winnow down their candidate list ahead of elections for the city’s Legislative Council in September. The unofficial vote was intended to overcome fractures in the opposition movement that have diluted their impact in previous elections and prevented them from winning a majority.
“Organizations and individuals who participated in unlawful elections will not get the results they want,” a Liaison Office spokesperson said in the statement. “Those who are willing to act as proxies of foreign forces, who try to confront the state, who undermine the principle of ‘one country, two systems,’ while attempting to separate Hong Kong from the mainland, will have no way out. There is no room for them in Hong Kong’s system.”
Tai didn’t immediately respond to a text message and a phone call for comment on Tuesday.
China has defended the law as necessary to restore stability after a wave of historic protests last year, repeatedly saying that it would be used to prosecute “extremely few” people. Civil society groups, business chambers and foreign governments including the US and the U.K. say the law’s provisions are vague, threaten freedom of expression and risk the city’s status as a global financial hub.
The Liaison Office statement followed warnings from Hong Kong government officials saying the opposition primary could fall afoul of the sweeping security measures that were imposed by Beijing in late June and criticized by foreign governments including the US. The Hong Kong Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau separately pledged an “in-depth” investigation on Monday into a range of potential violations, including the subversion charge, which carries a sentence as long as life in prison.
The government cited the opposition’s plans to use greater representation in the Legislative Council to veto the government’s budget. Under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, repeated failures to pass a budget would force the city’s Beijing-appointed chief executive to resign.
“We will not tolerate any practices trying to interfere, disrupt, cause confusion to a coming election in September,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam told a news briefing Monday night, adding the city had “no such thing as a primary.”
“I hope people will not be confused by this so-called primary,” she said. “It’s not part of Hong Kong’s electoral system.”
More than 600,000 Hong Kong residents—representing about 13 percent of registered voters—turned out for the primary, despite government warnings and a new wave of Covid-19 infections. Organizers say they have seen heightened interest across the opposition bloc—from moderate democracy advocates to more radical “localists”—after last year’s protests.
Pro-Beijing officials have also called for those who oppose the law to be barred from seeking office. Hong Kong has already prevented nine candidates from seeking office in previous elections, after taking the unprecedented step in 2016.
“With the support of foreign forces, some opposition groups and their leaders have deliberately devised plans to hold these so-called primaries, which have seriously challenged the current electoral system, and seriously damaged the fairness and justice of the Legislative Council elections,” the Liaison Office said on Monday. “They also seriously damaged the legitimate rights and interests of other potential candidates.”
A survey released by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong earlier Monday showed that 76 percent of respondents were concerned about the law, and that their primary worry was the ambiguity of the measure’s provisions and enforcement.
“The potential for arbitrary application of the national security law is frightening to many and Hong Kong’s judiciary is powerless to protect the people and rule of law,” one unnamed respondent told AmCham.
Image credits: AP/Vincent Yu