Only 17 per cent of Hong Kong people support a government proposal to let Hongkongers living in mainland China cast ballots remotely in the city’s elections, according to an opinion survey conducted for HKFP.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam has claimed public support for the idea with media reports suggesting she will include it in her 2020 policy address. The address was postponed to the end of next month so that Beijing could be consulted.

election polling vote ballot
Electoral staff count votes in the 2012 Legislative Council Election. Photo: GovHK.

Reports say that the government intends to let Hongkongers living in the Greater Bay Area – consisting of Hong Kong, Macau and nine mainland cities including Shenzhen and Guangzhou – to cast ballots in next September’s Legislative Council (LegCo) election. Voters currently must be physically present in Hong Kong on polling day.

According to the random telephone survey conducted between October 19-22 by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI), 697 – 68.3 per cent – of the 1,020 Hongkongers polled said they opposed the suggested voting arrangement.

Only 179 respondents – or 17.5 per cent – backed the proposal, while 96 people – 9.4 per cent – described themselves as “half-half.” The remaining 4.8 per cent either said they did not know or thought it was hard to say.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam. Photo: GovHK.

Each respondent was asked how much they supported or opposed the suggestion that the vote should be extended to Hongkongers living in China “but not for Hongkongers living elsewhere outside Hong Kong, like those living in Taiwan or overseas.”

Among all respondents, 45.8 per cent identified themselves as pro-democracy, while 13.4 per cent said they were pro-establishment. 20.5 per cent said they inclined towards centrist views, while 14 per cent said they were politically neutral. The rest said they did not know.

On Tuesday, Lam said the suggestion had been discussed in society and the legislature. The government is revisiting its previous view on the voting issue in light of the coronavirus pandemic, which has prevented some Hong Kong citizens on the mainland from crossing the border to vote, she said. “The public opinion on this issue has been very clear. But the point is, like many other things, especially those with the mainland dimension, it is extremely difficult to get a consensus on such matters,” Lam added.

‘Society’s demand’

On October 12, Lam told Shenzhen Satellite TV that the proposal was “society’s demand” and a “practical issue” that should be explored, since the current coronavirus pandemic showed that mainland-based Hongkongers might not be able to return to the city for voting.

Lam had cited potential dangers from Covid-19, and difficulties which would be faced in returning to vote, as reasons for postponing the Legislative Council elections by one year.

Greater Bay Area cities
Greater Bay Area cities. Photo: GovHK website screenshot.

At a press briefing on October 20, Lam said that many registered voters are now spending a lot of time across the border for work, investment or study. She said these people who are “strongly connected” to Hong Kong would expect that they have a chance to vote in the city’s general election: “So it would be unreasonable to deny them a chance to vote and this is what I meant by the public or society’s expectations.”

The Hong Kong leader added any changes to voting arrangements would require a legislative amendment and the public would be consulted. But the South China Morning Post reported on Sunday that the proposal would go directly to LegCo without public consultation, citing sources.

Pro-democracy legislators have accused the government of attempts to “rig” elections to favour the pro-establishment camp, saying they would have difficulty campaigning in mainland China. They also argued any move to allow overseas voting should also be extended to expatriate Hongkongers in Taiwan and the West.

“[The government] is allowing allowing vote-rigging on the mainland and developing an unfair electoral system,” Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said this month.

District Council election 2019
Hongkongers line up to vote in the 2019 District Council election. Photo: GovHK.

Pro-Beijing lawmakers have thrown their weight behind the proposal. Regina Ip of the New People’s Party said that based on the principle of “One Country,” Hong Kong should first implement overseas voting in mainland cities where many Hongkongers live, such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangdong province, before expanding it to other countries and regions.

Potential legal challenges

Ma Ngok, an associate professor and elections expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told HKFP that the government may face legal challenges if the voting abroad arrangements only cover those living in mainland China.

“If now you are arranging polling stations for those living in the Greater Bay Area, or other areas on the mainland, while those who are studying abroad [elsewhere] or have left Hong Kong temporarily cannot vote, then this becomes some kind of election inequality,” Ma said.

electoral affairs commission 2020 legislative council election
Electoral Affairs Commission chairman Barnabas Fung (middle), member Arthur Luk and former member Fanny Cheung. Photo: GovHK.

He said that – while the government has not confirmed details of the proposal – one of the biggest foreseeable issues would be the applicability of Hong Kong’s electoral laws. The authorities would also have to resolve issues surrounding vote monitoring and law enforcement in case of any corruption or other illegal acts.

“Theoretically speaking, Hong Kong’s electoral laws should not be applicable on the mainland. If someone bribes or threatens voters on the mainland, will anyone monitor and enforce the law and who?” he asked.

Similar comments were reflected in a report by the government-appointed Electoral Affairs Commission (EAC) on October 12, saying that voting outside Hong Kong involves “substantial considerations in electoral policies.” The authorities should consider the overall impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the next election and the feasibility of setting up polling stations outside Hong Kong, the commission wrote.

“In the event that the government does decide to implement voting outside Hong Kong, as the EAC has no experience in conducting the poll abroad, it has to rely on the assistance and support of relevant government departments familiar with the situation and operation abroad for co-ordination and implementation,” the report read.

HKFP reached out to Lam’s office for a response but was referred to the mainland affairs bureau.

According to LegCo documents, the Panel on Constitutional Affairs have discussed the suggestion to let mainland-based Hongkongers cast their votes outside the city, with some discussion dating back to 2014. However, last November, the then-constitutional and mainland affairs minister Patrick Nip said the government had no plan to implement such proposal: “The simplest questions is, how to implement Hong Kong electoral laws outside Hong Kong? This cannot be resolved easily. [If you] cannot resolve the issues, voting abroad cannot be implemented.”

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.