Hong Kong’s Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang has said the government is “proactively studying” recommendations to enhance the city’s electoral arrangements, including allowing Hongkongers living in mainland China to vote in local elections.

At a Legislative Council (LegCo) meeting on Wednesday, Tsang responded to questions submitted by Civic Party leader and lawmaker Alvin Yeung, regarding media reports that the government has plans to introduce external voting for eligible voters residing across the border.

Erick Tsang. Photo: iCable screenshot.

The mainland affairs minister said there had been calls in society over the years urging the government to look into an arrangement for voting outside of Hong Kong. He cited an estimate by the Census and Statistics Department that showed around 330,000 Hong Kong permanent residents aged 18 or above were living in Guangdong province as of mid-2019.

Tsang said the external voting proposal would be in line with Hong Kong’s integration within China’s national development. The postponement of the 2020 LegCo election owing to the coronavirus pandemic also revealed the city’s current electoral system was unable to cope with “very exceptional circumstances,” he said.

“Hence, exploring how to facilitate Hong Kong residents living in the mainland to cast their votes is in line with the direction of such a development.”

Pro-democracy legislator Yeung said it was “rare” for the government to pay respect to voices in society and asked Tsang to respond to a randomised telephone survey conducted by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) and commissioned by HKFP.

File Photo: May James/HKFP.

The survey revealed that 68 per cent of the 1,020 Hong Kong citizens polled said they opposed the idea of introducing external voting in mainland China, while Hongkongers living elsewhere outside the city – such as Taiwan and overseas – would not be allowed to vote.

Tsang said he had doubts on the “prerequisites” of the survey respondents, who were Cantonese-speaking residents aged 18 or above: “I don’t understand why these prerequisites are put in place… is it that if they speak Putonghua or English, their views wouldn’t be collected?”

The government official also raised questions about how almost half of the responses were via landline, suggesting that the opinions of mainland-based Hongkongers were not reflected in the survey.

“Let’s bear in mind that when it comes to external voting arrangements, it’s more likely that Hong Kong residents living outside Hong Kong would be more [affected],” Tsang said. “With these conditions put in place, I do question the credibility of this poll and its representativeness.”

Robert Chung, executive director of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

In response to Tsang’s remarks, Robert Chung, executive director of PORI, told HKFP that their survey complied with professional standards of local and international opinion polling. He admitted that every survey had its limitations but said those can be estimated statistically and scientifically.

Chung said the conclusion that Hongkongers disapprove of the proposal to allow Hong Kong election voting in mainland China was “beyond statistical error in the strictest sense.”

“HKPORI welcomes any government or research organisation to conduct its own research to prove the survey wrong,” Chung told HKFP.

‘Potentially explosive problems’

At the PORI press conference on Tuesday, Kenneth Chan, an associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University and a comparative governance specialist, warned the proposed voting arrangement could be a “potentially explosive issue.”

Robert Chung (centre). Photo: PORI.

The scholar said the proposal would change the foundation of Hong Kong’s electoral system and pointed to issues with election monitoring, the applicability of local electoral laws, as well as censorship concerns over the promotional materials of democratic candidates.

“It’s going to generate very difficult, political, potentially explosive problems, that will drag Hong Kong down the drain drastically if voting outside Hong Kong – specifically in China – was to be implemented,” Chan said.

During Wednesday’s meeting in the legislature, Edward Lau of the pro-Beijing DAB party said voting outside Hong Kong would provide convenience to citizens, while the Democratic Party’s Lam Cheuk-ting slammed the proposal as a “blatant vote-rigging” by the government and the pro-establishment camp.

The mainland affairs minister rebuffed Lam’s claim and said the government would ensure the election is conducted in an open, fair and honest manner. Tsang added under the current Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance, the authorities still have the power to launch investigations if there is an electoral fraud, even if it happens outside Hong Kong.

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Kelly Ho

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.