There was an interesting interview last week with Mr Lo Kin-hei, who currently occupies the most perilous political post in Hong Kong – he is the chairman of the Democratic Party. In that capacity he spends a good deal of time visiting fellow-members in prison, and some of the rest of the time contemplating the possibility that he will sooner or later be joining them.

Mr Lo is now considering a serious question for the party he leads: will it be worthwhile for its members to contest elections under the new laws imposed on us during the last year?

Voters line up to cast their ballots in the 2016 Legislative Council elections. File Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

In the next elections the construction of the Legislative Council will be fixed by a whole series of constitutional wrinkles clearly intended to ensure that no more than about ten democrats will make it to the newly enlarged 90-member legislature.

Those who wish to take part will have to undergo a long vetting process, including inquiries by the national security cops, assessment by a committee of the government’s senior uniformed flunkies, and a further consideration by a committee of the senior non-uniformed flunkies, all under the watchful eye of the mainland’s Liaison Office.

Anyone who manages to make it onto the ballot will have to swear an oath of allegiance to Hong Kong as a part of China. Subsequent expression of a variety of widely held opinions could lead to local witch-hunters calling for a prosecution of the offending member for breaching the oath, with the prospect if convicted of disqualification and prison.

Clearly this presents Mr Lo’s party with a dilemma. Getting people elected is what parties do but the present circumstances are discouraging. There is not much point in electing people who are jailed soon after their arrival. But then there is not much point in electing people who will be too intimidated to say anything interesting.

Legislative Council Chamber. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Mr Lo says that even a minority voice is still a voice, and cites the experience of opposition parties in pre-democratic Taiwan and Czechoslovakia who participated in elections, against great odds, because it was a way of increasing their persuasive, if not political, power.

He notes also a concern that the electorate may not look kindly on politicians who take part in the new system, and suggests that his party should be given plenty of time to think about it.

Well, they may not get it. The government intends to legislate against any attempt to encourage people to spoil ballots or to boycott an election. This should not mean that the Democratic Party can be prosecuted for not participating. Though these days, who knows? But if it decides not to run, the announcement will have to be phrased rather carefully.

Well, the Democratic Party needs no advice from me, and in any case I am not a member. I wish them wisdom in their deliberations but I would like to consider a different and purely personal question: in the light of the new arrangements, am I likely to vote?

Generally I have been a compulsive voter. It is a short drive down the hill to our local polling station and the family routinely pops down together to cast our respective ballots. I think I have voted in every election since the government’s first “register as an elector” drive in the early 1990s. 

Lai Kok Estate polling station. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

I am aware of the arguments that this is a waste of time. Economists routinely point out that voting is an example of extreme altruism because in most cases one vote makes no difference. Also many candidates are uninspiring. In my student rebel days I adorned my office with a poster urging people to “Vote for Guy Fawkes, the only man to enter parliament with honest intentions.”

On the other hand, in Hong Kong voting was a welcome new thing – an opportunity to participate in replacing a colonial arrangement with something accountable to society. So I voted with a certain joy. Alas, my vote does not seem to have done some of the recipients much good. All the people I have ever voted for in Legislative Council elections won seats … and are now in prison or in exile.

I suppose in the next LegCo election there will be some candidate claiming the “democratic” label, whether he is a member of Mr Lo’s party or not. And the question is whether it will be worth the trouble to get down there and vote for this person.

The winnowing process is elaborate and lengthy. Anyone who is allowed to put his name on the ballot has been closely examined for signs of witchcraft. So we can assume that this person did not participate to any public extent in Occupy, did not under any circumstances riot, did not express support for the five demands, did not call for commemoration of the Tiananmen Massacre or for a proper inquiry into the policing of the 2019 disturbances.

“Universal suffrage.” Photo: May James/HKFP.

He or she did not participate in the pan-democratic primary which has now been turned into a criminal offence, did not participate in raising money for the cause – or money laundering, as it is now officially known – and has never expressed inconvenient opinions on Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang or the merits of having Mr Xi as President-for-ever.

And who knows – for no reasons will be given – what other peccadilloes will be regarded as disqualifying a candidate? Could it be a bad move to subscribe to Apple Daily, to have an overseas passport, or to possess a Chickeeduck VIP card?

I am left feeling like Groucho Marx, who said he would not join any club which was willing to have a person like him as a member. I do not think I want to vote for anyone who has met the requirements imposed by the electoral arrangements and the national security law on those who wish to run.

This is a purely personal matter which we will all have to decide for ourselves. I do not suggest that the example of one aged foreigner should have any general influence. Personally there are some things I simply will not do. I will not stand on street corners waving a little red flag for people I despise; I will not pipe for any organisation which uses the goose-step, and I will not participate in sham elections. As Sam Goldwyn may have said (he denied it), include me out.

Clarification 7/9/2022: An earlier version of this article included an image of Indonesian voters in Hong Kong. It was replaced to better illustrate this opinion piece about Hong Kong voters.

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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.