Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng has urged Hong Kong’s leader to ensure local elections are held in a lawful and orderly manner in the coming year while also stressing that bringing the Covid-19 situation under control should be her top priority, according to state media.
Xinhua revealed the comments that Han made to Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor during a rare meeting outside Beijing with Hong Kong, Macau and mainland officials in the Guangdong provincial capital on Thursday.
Han brought up Hong Kong’s electoral overhaul, which was ordered by the nation’s top legislative body last month to ensure the city was governed by “patriots” who would uphold national security, Xinhua reported.
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The Legislative Council has been scrutinising local legislation to implement the changes ahead of legislative polls and the chief executive election in December and next March, respectively.
The Hong Kong government described the talks in a statement released on Thursday as concerned with cross-border technological collaboration as part of the Greater Bay Area integration drive.
According to Xinhua, Han said in his meeting with Lam that the decision on the political revamp by the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee would provide solid institutional safeguards for Hong Kong’s long-term stability.
“Hong Kong must attach importance to and complete the relevant local legislative work, as well as the organisation of the series of elections this year and next year,” Han said.
“Hong Kong and Macau must also treat pandemic control as the top priority in rebooting the economy and improving people’s livelihood. The central government, as always, would offer its full support.”
Han met Lam and Macau leader Ho Iat-seng separately, according to Xinhua.
Han also said Beijing would support the bay area plan so that Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity could be guaranteed.
Hours before Han’s remarks were reported by Xinhua, lawmakers called for tougher penalties against Hong Kong schools and NGOs drawing on public funds that refused to make their premises available for election authorities to use as polling stations.
A bill enabling the overhaul of local elections would impose fines of up to HK$10,000 (US$1,300) on those organisations receiving government cash but failing to comply with orders to open up their facilities for voting and counting in city elections.
But some Legco members on Friday said those provisions in the Improving Electoral System (Consolidated Amendments) Bill did not go far enough, and called for stricter punishments to increase the deterrent effect, questioning whether the fine was high enough given the wealth of some international schools.
New People’s Party chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said: “In the Legco polls in 2016, a school refused to lend their premises to the government. The government had to rely on a smaller polling station, and voting lasted until 2am. This new power is really needed … But is the HK$10,000 deterrent enough? We really doubt that.”
Roy Tang Yun-kwong, permanent secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, said while he would not speculate as to why some schools were reluctant to let authorities use their campus, he believed the new clause and greater powers for the chief electoral officer would reduce the possibility of non-compliance.
“If a school still refuses to comply, we will contact its headquarters, so that the schools can be more cooperative in human resources and facilities management,” he said.
A Department of Justice representative told Friday’s Legco meeting that fines would not be imposed by a criminal court, but the government would instead have to pursue the sum as a civil matter through the Small Claims Tribunal, an arrangement some lawmakers urged officials to consider amending.
The Liberal Party’s Frankie Yick Chi-ming said the system was not strong enough.
“It could be useless for the Education Bureau to contact [a school’s] headquarters because it will probably agree with the school’s decision,” he said. “So you should either make it compulsory, or impose a heftier fine.”
Pro-establishment lawmaker Paul Tse Wai-chun proposed that the Education Bureau consider specifying in a school’s licence that it was obliged to lend its campus to the government for use in public elections.
The bill will also introduce a new offence under the Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance to prohibit any person from inciting others “not to vote, or to cast invalid votes” through public activities during an election period.
The draft legislation defines public activities as any form of communication to the public and any conduct observable by the public, including actions, clothing and gestures.
Lawmakers urged officials to specify in the law that it was only unlawful to encourage others not to vote when there was an intention to manipulate or undermine the election.
Tse warned that officials must avoid “overkill”, as the definition of inciting another person not to vote could be too broad.
“If it’s too hot or too cold on the polling day, or if there’s an epidemic going on, I might ask others not to take the risk of voting. But under this bill, I would have broken the law by inciting others not to vote, regardless of how good my reasons were,” he said.
Localist lawmaker Cheng Chung-tai said he was concerned as to whether someone could be prosecuted for wearing white on polling day, under a scenario in which an activist had called for voters to dress that way to show they were casting blank ballots.
Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang Kwok-wai said police were unlikely to arrest voters simply because they were wearing a particular colour.
“For criminal offences, we have strict rules on the gathering of evidence and what constitutes incitement,” he said.
Tang also told lawmakers on Friday that the bill would empower electoral officers to set up special queues at polling stations for elderly voters and other electors in need. If necessary, helpers or family members could also accompany those voters in line, he added.
Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Alice Mak Mei-kuen warned that to avoid confusion, clear guidelines should be provided to the officers as to whether the helpers or family members could enter the polling station to vote as well.
The committee will continue to meet nearly every day next week to scrutinise the bill, which is expected to be approved by the end of May.
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