Last week, the National People’s Congress put its inevitable stamp of approval on changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system. Those changes have obliterated any remaining vestiges of democracy in the territory. In the next Legislative Council election, all candidates will be required to show fealty to the Chinese Communist Party. The pro-democracy opposition will be, in practical terms, dead and buried. The choices of voters will be circumscribed to the point of being meaningless.
Like many expatriates in Hong Kong, I come from a place where voting is considered to be a civic duty. When I became a permanent resident, which made me eligible to vote in local elections, I felt that it was my obligation to participate. I therefore registered to vote in both my geographic constituency and the functional constituency of my profession. I felt some discomfort when exercising the latter vote because, by definition, the constituency excludes most people, but I took solace in knowing that it was by far the largest and possibly the most democratic.
As a voter in Hong Kong, it has always been a frustration to see how little going to the polls has mattered. The majority of voters have consistently chosen candidates from “pan-democratic” parties, yet biases built in to the political system have meant that pan-democratic representatives were always the minority in the Legislative Council.
In recent years things have become much worse: many pan-democratic legislators have been removed from office and pan-democratic candidates have been summarily disqualified at the behest of unelected officials. When pan-democrats swept the vote in the last District Council election, they were deemed by the government to be grave threats to society. It’s just a matter of time before many of them are also removed from office.
Adding profound insult to injury, pan-democratic politicians doing what politicians do in democracies all around the world – running in a primary to choose who among them should stand for election – have been declared by the government to be criminals. They have been subjected to arrest and denied fundamental rights that were, until very recently, taken for granted in Hong Kong.
Even before these latest anti-democratic outrages by the government, I became increasingly uneasy about my role in a deeply flawed electoral system. How could I justify voting when it was clear that the people to whom I gave my vote would invariably be disrespected and disempowered by the government? By voting, was I not helping the government to claim that it was upholding democratic principles when in fact it was doing just the opposite?
By early this year I concluded that it was time to stop pretending that I could positively contribute to Hong Kong by exercising my vote. I decided to withdraw my name from the electoral register. Thankfully, the Registration and Electoral Office (REO) makes it extremely easy to do this. And I chose a good time to take action: the REO is currently calling for voters to update their personal particulars. The deadline is April 2.
Having my name deleted from the electoral register involved taking two very simple steps. First, in mid-January I sent a letter to the Registration and Electoral Office, 13/F, Kowloon Bay International Trade & Exhibition Centre, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, Kowloon, Hong Kong. As requested on the REO’s website, the letter included my Hong Kong ID number, telephone number and correspondence address. I made the following request:
“Given actions by the HKSAR Government over the last six months, including but not limited to the Government’s disqualification and arrest of individuals who wish to run for office, I believe that Hong Kong will cease to have free and fair (i.e., democratic) elections in the future. With this in mind, I request that you kindly remove me from the register of electors.”
A few days later I received a letter from the REO with an easy-to-complete reply slip, which I returned to them by post. (They conveniently offered to receive it by fax or email.)
Shortly after I mailed the reply slip, I received another letter from the REO confirming that my name would be removed from the register at the next update. The process could not have been simpler. The REO should be commended for making it so easy to remove one’s name from the electoral register. Whatever one thinks of the legitimacy of Hong Kong’s electoral institutions, the efficiency of government offices often deserves praise.
Another beauty of the process is that it’s easily reversed: if by some miracle there is a move toward democracy in Hong Kong in the future, it’s a simple matter to have one’s name returned to the electoral register.
Sadly, not long after I took these steps my concerns about the deterioration of democratic norms in Hong Kong were reinforced when the police arrested dozens of pan-democratic politicians and their supporters, including some of most erudite and respectable people in Hong Kong. It is likely that the person I would have voted for in the next Legislative Council election is among those currently sitting in jail.
As the government in coming days and weeks contorts itself to respond to growing international condemnation of the profound diminution of freedoms in Hong Kong, its worth reminding ourselves that democracy is a form of government whereby sovereignty is vested in the citizenry; it is government of and by the people. Hong Kong’s government is neither. It is not of the people because only candidates of the ruling regime – i.e., “patriots,” which Hong Kong officials have defined as those who love the Chinese Communist Party – will be allowed to stand for office. The constituents of future legislators won’t be in Hong Kong; they will be in Beijing.
Hong Kong’s form of government is also not by the people because citizens are not allowed to choose their representatives democratically. However absurd it may seem to outsiders, and indeed to most Hong Kong people, doing just that is now considered by the central and local governments to be a serious threat to China’s national security. As things stand now, it is perhaps understandable that anyone who truly respects democracy would not want to be a voter in Hong Kong.
Some people may be critical of my decision to withdraw as a voter. Members of the pan-democratic camp might say that I should remain a voter so that my vote could be used strategically in the future. But such a view would be naïve; there is no chance whatsoever that the current Chinese leadership will ever again allow such strategizing, let alone a truly democratic vote, in Hong Kong.
Supporters of the government may be critical of me for acting in a way that appears to be critical of the establishment. However, on reflection they may come to think that I am doing the government a favour: I have reduced by one the number of people who are likely to boycott future elections as a way of protesting their absurdity. And Beijing should be happy that there is one less voter – not least a non-Chinese voter – who is not a “patriot.”
To the government’s embarrassment, however, it is safe to say that a majority of people on the current electoral register do not fit the government’s definition of “patriots,” despite most of them respecting and even loving China. Perhaps the government should encourage these people to follow my example and have their names removed from the electoral register, too.
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