What were the Hong Kong government and its masters hoping to achieve with the farce described as an election under a “perfected” system?

Set aside for a moment the fact that despite inducements, threats, and avid attempts at promotion, an overwhelming majority of the Hong Kong public shunned this event. Let’s focus on why the government bothered to go to all this trouble to secure an outcome that was preordained from the outset.

2021 LegCo Election Election Committee constituency
Candidates in the Election Committee constituency in Hong Kong’s first “patriots-only” Legislative Council election. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Although China’s Communist Party does not waste time on mainland elections involving the public at large, the desire for pre-rigged polls is commonplace among authoritarian systems. And in Hong Kong, where an authoritarian system in diapers is still exercising its baby legs, the urge to mirror the actions of fully fledged authoritarians is ever-present.

At one level this reflects the nagging insecurities that afflict all governments seeking to rule without a public mandate. They want to be assured that they have public support but are not sufficiently confident to see it manifest without controls.

Thus an election with an assured outcome provides comfort, albeit of a quite illusory nature. But then again it is becoming increasingly unclear whether or not reality impinges on the people who rule Hong Kong.

2021 LegCo Election vote counting
Chairperson of the Electoral Affairs Commission Justice Barnabas Fung and Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang opening the first ballot box in Hong Kong’s first “pariots-only” legislative race on December 19, 2021. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Do they actually believe all the nonsense they spout? For example, did Xia Baolong, the head of China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, really believe that the election was open to all candidates “whatever ideas, political stances, religions or demands?”

Did Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive in Name Only (CENO), really believe that the explanation for a low turnout would be that “the government is doing well and its credibility is high,” and therefore “the people do not have a strong demand to choose different lawmakers to supervise the government.”

Statements of this kind reflect the high levels of delusion in authoritarian ruling circles. This must certainly be the case in more developed autocracies, such as that which prevails in North Korea where elections always secure 99.9 per cent support for the ruling party, accompanied by severe penalties for citizens who fail to vote or dare to spoil their ballot papers.

It should be noted that Hong Kong has now trotted along behind the rulers in Pyongyang by criminalising advocacy of election boycotts and calls to spoil ballot papers. There was even a suggestion of jailing pollsters who asked people about their voting intentions – this, incidentally, may still happen.

2021 legco election: Chief Executive Carrie Lam casted her ballot at the Raimondi College poling station.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam cast her ballot at the Raimondi College poling station. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Delusion is accompanied by the contempt of the rulers for the ruled. Thus we saw some rather pathetic attempts at bribing, sorry, encouraging voters to feel good by offering free transport on election day. The rulers always assume that their own cynicism and greed is universal and will therefore always work.

Another reason they like to hold elections is that authoritarians actually believe such polls enhance their credibility. In the parallel world of fear and fantasy that prevails these days in Hong Kong, the cyphers who run the government scramble to echo the narrative emanating from Beijing – which stresses the uselessness of democratic forms of government while, at the same time, insisting that their form of democracy is superior to all others.

Thus Carrie Lam was to be found tying herself up in knots explaining that Hong Kong no longer needed to engage in the “blind pursuit” of western-style democracy and asking: “What’s the point of having so-called democracy if people are suffering, as you can see in some western democracies in the course of fighting Covid-19?”

Maybe however it is the case that elections give the administration an opportunity to reject claims that the SAR is retreating from representative government. The apologists for the regime maintain that there are now more seats in the legislature. They celebrate the efficient way in which lawmakers now handle legislation without resort to laborious questioning and with a straight face maintain that universal suffrage is still part of the system. These claims would work even better If only the wretched Hong Kong people could be persuaded to play ball by coming out to vote.

2021 LegCo Election: A polling station in Taikoo.
A polling station in Tai Koo. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

However, as was seen on Sunday, Hongkongers have not suddenly become stupid, nor has the spirit of defiance been entirely extinguished. There is no longer any safe way of demonstrating support for the kind of One country, two systems concept originally promised to the SAR, so passive resistance has to be the order of the day.

This is why a record low 30.2 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote, way down on the turnout for LegCo elections in 2016 and less than half the number who cast their votes in the district councils poll in 2019 – the last time anything like a fair and transparent election was held and voters overwhelmingly backed candidates who believe in democracy.

The option of voting for a genuine opposition no longer exists. Nearly all those who succeeded in past polls have either been jailed, dismissed from office, or left the city of their own accord.

That leaves the field open for elections to be contested by the shamelessly ambitious, those who have no chance of being elected in an open contest and, let’s be blunt, the serried ranks of the useless. What a victory they have secured!

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Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship