Hong Kong’s anti-graft agency has said it would not have the enforcement powers to tackle election fraud over the border if voting was extended to mainland China, just hours after a minister told lawmakers the opposite was true.
The Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) on Wednesday issued a clarification to remarks made by Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang Kwok-wai on the government plan to allow Hongkongers in other parts of the country to cast votes in local elections without travelling back to the city.
Sources told the Post earlier this week that the city government planned to unveil a proposed amendment to the election law without public consultation and before Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s annual policy address at the end of next month.
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Responding to opposition lawmakers’ concerns over potential election fraud, Tsang told the Legislative Council that the city’s anti-corruption laws also applied to conduct committed beyond its borders, as he “totally disagreed” that vote-rigging was inevitable if polling stations were set up on the mainland.
“Even if there is conduct taking place outside Hong Kong that breaches the ordinance, we still have the investigatory and enforcement powers to deal with them,” he told Legco, without elaborating on how that could be done.
Since the ICAC cannot exercise its law enforcement powers outside Hong Kong, the commission will send requests to the relevant mainland authorities and seek their assistance
Spokesman for the Independent Commission Against Corruption
Within hours, the ICAC insisted it did not have the authority to handle breaches of the law on the mainland, even though the relevant electoral legislation applied to conduct both inside and outside the city.
“Since the ICAC cannot exercise its law enforcement powers outside Hong Kong, the commission will send requests to the relevant mainland authorities and seek their assistance should the need for collecting evidence in the mainland arise during the course of investigation,” the spokesman told the South China Morning Post on Wednesday evening.
Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting, a former ICAC investigator, said the watchdog’s clarification highlighted the strong risk of electoral manipulation under the government’s vote-extending plans, given Hong Kong had no legal framework to deal with fraud outside its jurisdiction.
“The ICAC’s move is to set the record straight so as to avoid becoming a scapegoat for the policy bureau in future,” he said.
A report released by the Electoral Affairs Commission (EAC) earlier in the month warned the government must carefully consider the applicability and enforcement of Hong Kong’s electoral law outside the city.
On Wednesday, Tsang made it clear that proposals involving potential amendments to electoral legislation would be drawn up only after the government completed an internal feasibility study.
“The severe epidemic situation highlighted the urgency of our study. And in recent years, there have been more people moving to the mainland for their own needs,” he said.
“We have been racing against time to formulate proposals for the Legco elections scheduled for September 5, 2021.”
In July, the chief executive invoked emergency powers to postpone the Legco elections by one year, citing the risk of further escalating a resurgent Covid-19 crisis and denying any political motives were at play.
Without confirming there would be a consultation process, Tsang said his Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau, the Department of Justice, and the Registration and Electoral Office had already been studying views and concerns voiced by the public.
The minister said allowing cross-border voting represented one of the policies that could help Hong Kong better integrate into national development, including the ambitious Greater Bay Area plan.
He cited figures from the Census and Statistics Department which showed that, as of mid-2019, about 330,000 Hong Kong permanent residents aged 18 or above were living in Guangdong province.
According to a survey of 1,020 residents published on Tuesday by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, 68 per cent of respondents opposed suggestions that would allow Hongkongers living on the mainland to vote in the city’s election, while 18 per cent supported the idea.
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