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Arrests and low turnout as Hong Kong holds first ‘patriots-only’ election

A man walks past signs for candidates during the district council election in Hong Kong on 10 December 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)
A man walks past signs for candidates during the district council election in Hong Kong on 10 December 2023 (AFP via Getty Images)

Three pro-democracy activists were arrested in Hong Kong on Sunday as residents went to the polls in the first district council elections since Beijing introduced a rule allowing only “patriots” to run for office.

Police arrested three members of the League of Social Democrats in Central, the main business district on Hong Kong Island, the group said.

The activists were planning to protest against what has been dubbed a "birdcage election", given new rules allowing the authorities to vet all candidates that have effectively barred all pro-democratic politicians from running.

As a result, many voters are turning their backs on the polls, with the final turnout closely watched as a barometer of public sentiment toward the new system.

With only three hours of voting to go, turnout was just 22.66 per cent at 7.30pm – down from 63.65 per cent at the same time in the previous elections held in 2019, at the height of anti-government protests.

"Hong Kong people’s right to vote and to be elected seems to be absent," the League of Social Democrats said in a statement, adding that they had been followed since leaving home in the morning.

Police said in a statement that they had arrested three people on suspicion of "attempting to incite others to carry out acts that disrupt district council election". It said the three were detained pending further investigations.

A volunteer campaigns for the New People’s Party during the District Council election in Hong Kong (Reuters)
A volunteer campaigns for the New People’s Party during the District Council election in Hong Kong (Reuters)

The last council elections came amid mass stree protests that represent the greatest challenge to Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong since the 1997 handover from Britain. Those polls drew a record 71 per cent turnout and handed a landslide victory to the pro-democratic camp.

But Beijing responded to those results by overhauling the electoral system, effectively shutting out all pro-democracy candidates who fail screening based on how “patriotic” they are towards China.

The new amendment passed in July slashed the proportion of directly elected seats from some 90 per cent to about 20 per cent — a level even lower than when the bodies were first introduced in the 1980s under British rule. It also now required all candidates to undergo national security background checks and secure nominations from pro-government committees.

At a polling station in the residential district of Wong Tai Sin on Sunday morning, about 30 people stood in line outside the centre waiting for the doors to open at 8.30 am. More than 10,000 police officers were deployed across the city to ensure the elections would be conducted in a safe and orderly manner.

A woman walks past a stall with campaign posters of the District Council election candidates, in Hong Kong (Reuters)
A woman walks past a stall with campaign posters of the District Council election candidates, in Hong Kong (Reuters)

Housewife Ivy Sze, 37, said the overhaul did not shake her confidence in the electoral system. But she said she felt there were fewer voters in the morning than in previous elections.

"There used to be a long queue outside," she said, holding a thank-you card from the government, part of what officials called a "heartwarming" gesture for those who voted.

But university student Timothy Cheung, 21, decided not to vote following the rule changes, saying his peers also intended to abstain from the polls.

"It’s useless even if I vote. All candidates are leaning to one side," he said, referring to their pro-government backgrounds.

"The broad political spectrum of voices that we saw four years ago has all gone," said Tang, a 27-year-old who said she would boycott the vote, asking to be identified only by her family name.

Government officials have downplayed the significance of the turnout rate as a measure of the overhaul’s success. On Friday, the secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs Erick Tsang said not voting doesn’t necessarily imply opposition to the elections, adding one’s non-participation could be due to other reasons.

Still, Hong Kong leader John Lee and his administration stepped up efforts to drum up participation in the run-up to the polls. The government held various promotional activities, including carnivals, an outdoor concert and free admission to some museums.

"It’s very hard to talk about democracy or democratisation anymore in today’s Hong Kong," said Kenneth Chan, a political scientist at Hong Kong‘s Baptist University and a former pro-democracy lawmaker.

"What they’re doing now is the installation of the so-called patriots-only governance structure."