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Benedict Rogers

Voters should shun Hong Kong's sham election

Legislative Council poll is the latest chapter in the Chinese Communist Party's dismantling of the city's freedoms, human rights, rule of law and autonomy
Published: December 13, 2021 04:05 AM GMT

Updated: December 13, 2021 04:06 AM GMT

Voters should shun Hong Kong's sham election

On Dec. 19, Hong Kong will hold a so-called election for its Legislative Council — more than a year after it should have taken place and under a new and significantly different electoral system.

It comes just over a week after the United States, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom announced they will join Lithuania in a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, and an independent tribunal charged Xi Jinping’s regime with torture, crimes against humanity and genocide against the Uyghurs. How should the world judge Hong Kong’s elections, and what should Hong Kongers do?

The election — or “selection” as it should more properly be described — is a total sham. It is the latest chapter in the Chinese Communist Party regime’s dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms, human rights, rule of law and autonomy, and its all-out assault on the pro-democracy movement.

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Candidates for the Legislative Council are required to take an oath of allegiance to Beijing, and while it is known as a patriotism test, in reality it is about loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party, not just to China’s sovereignty. That has made it impossible for the pro-democracy camp to field candidates.

Originally scheduled for Sept. 6, 2020, the election was postponed, using Covid-19 as the excuse. In November last year, the entire pro-democracy camp in the Legislative Council was forced out, rendering the legislature an entirely pro-Beijing rubber-stamp puppet parliament, a wholly owned subsidiary of the National People’s Congress.

On Jan. 6 this year, 53 pro-democracy activists, including former legislators, candidates, pollsters and academics, were arrested and charged under the draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing on July 1, 2020. Their crime? Holding a primary election in 2020 to choose the democracy camp’s candidates for election to the legislature. On Feb. 28, some 47 of them were charged with conspiracy to commit subversion, and almost all were denied bail. Apart from Dennis Kwok and Ted Hui, almost all pro-democracy former legislators in Hong Kong are now behind bars.

In the Hong Kong context, a spoiled ballot is a risky business. It could land you in jail

That is the backdrop to next Sunday’s sham poll. It takes place under an overhauled system imposed by Beijing which increases the total number of seats in Hong Kong’s legislature from 70 to 90 but reduces the directly-elected seats from 35 to just 20. The so-called “functional constituencies” — representing professional interests such as financial services, education, real estate, tourism, accountancy and commercial, industrial and legal sectors — remain at 30 seats, but Beijing has always had an inbuilt overwhelming majority among them. The remaining 40 seats will be elected by the 1,500-member electoral committee responsible for choosing Hong Kong’s chief executive, and again, this is completely dominated by the pro-Beijing camp. In other words, it is a stitch-up of the most blatant sort.

Such a process deserves no credibility whatsoever. The international community must speak out strongly against it and must not give the new Legislative Council any legitimacy. As for what Hong Kongers should do, that is a matter for them. It is not for me sitting in London to tell them what to do. What I can do is say what I would do if I was still living in Hong Kong and had a vote. I would consider two options.

The first option would be to go to the polling station and put a spoiled ballot paper in the ballot box. I could write “none of the above” across the ballot paper, or draw a cartoon, or write “we want democracy and universal suffrage” or other words to that effect to indicate I have no confidence in what is on offer.

In a democracy like Britain, some voters do that, and those votes are counted as “spoiled ballots.” However, in Hong Kong there are three grave dangers with this approach. The first is that going to the polling station in itself increases voter turnout figures, which could be used by the authorities to claim credibility and legitimacy. The second is that the spoiled ballots may be disregarded, not counted, and the expression of protest never made known. And the third is that those who spoil their ballot papers could be identified and penalized, possibly even under the national security law. In the Hong Kong context, a spoiled ballot is a risky business. It could land you in jail.

The second, safer option would be to stay home and watch a movie. Or have a day out somewhere. The government is offering free public transport next Sunday in the hope it will encourage voter turnout. Why not take advantage of that but instead of casting a vote, enjoy the day with family or friends? That’s what I would do if I was a Hong Kong voter. I would not be able to legitimize this sham process by casting a vote.

Last week the Hong Kong government wrote to both The Wall Street Journal in New York and The Sunday Times in London, complaining about editorials these two newspapers had published about the election. In a menacing tone, Hong Kong officials warned that “inciting another person not to vote, or to cast an invalid vote … is an offence under section 27A of the Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance, irrespective of whether the incitement is made in Hong Kong or abroad.”

As we look at the grim picture in Hong Kong, let us not forget the even darker crisis for human rights in mainland China itself

As with the repressive national security law, which claims “extraterritorial” application, the Chinese regime is using its laws to try to intimidate critics well beyond its borders. It is outrageous and unacceptable. To repress its own people is bad enough but to attempt to silence free speech and free press in democratic societies must be met with the strongest possible resistance. We should not stand for it.

As we look at the grim picture in Hong Kong, let us not forget the even darker crisis for human rights in mainland China itself. The independent Uyghur Tribunal, chaired by British barrister Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic, revealed its judgment last week after a year of considering extensive evidence of the human rights violations suffered by the Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province.

Reading out the 62-page summary to a respectfully silent room in Church House, London, Sir Geoffrey described accounts of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs detained “without any or any remotely sufficient reason” and subjected to “acts of unconscionable cruelty, depravity and inhumanity.” Many, he said, were tortured; many “shackled … immobilized for months on end”; others “confined in containers up to the neck in cold water; and detained in cages so small that standing or lying was impossible.” One young woman had been gang-raped by policemen in front of 100 people forced to watch. “Women detainees have had their vaginas and rectums penetrated by electric shock rods and iron bars,” he recounted.

Sir Geoffrey outlined in meticulous and dispassionate detail the process the tribunal went through and the legal definitions of the categories of crime they were examining. He made clear that multiple invitations were made to the Chinese regime to present its case, and that evidence suspected of being unfair to Beijing for any reason was disregarded. The eminent panel — which consisted of five professors, including two leading medical experts, lawyers, business leaders and philanthropists — weighed the evidence against the details of the law.

The tribunal found that the charge of torture, “by or at the instigation of, or with the consent or acquiescence of, public officials” representing the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party, was proven beyond reasonable doubt.

Of the 11 qualifying acts deemed as crimes against humanity, they concluded that murder, extermination or enslavement were not proven. But the crimes of deportation and forcible transfer of people, imprisonment and severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, rape and sexual violence, persecution, enforced disappearance and “inhumane acts” are all proven, according to the tribunal, beyond reasonable doubt.

The Chinese Communist Party is in flagrant and repeated breach of international law. In Xinjiang, the regime is engaged in the destruction of a people, their religion, culture, language and identity

And while four of the five acts of genocide were not proven, the tribunal found that the Chinese regime’s policies “imposing conditions intended to prevent birth” render the regime guilty of genocide. Forced sterilization, forced removal of wombs, forced abortions and forced contraception all result, the tribunal judged, in “significantly fewer births” among the Uyghur population. This satisfied the tribunal that the Chinese regime “intended to destroy a significant part of the Uyghurs” and thus has committed genocide.

The tribunal — set up independently of governments or international judicial mechanisms — has no enforcement powers. But the credibility of its distinguished panel, the comprehensive compilation of evidence, and the legal rigor with which it conducted its inquiry means that its judgment should be listened to. The day after the judgment was delivered, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights announced its plan to publish findings on Xinjiang. It is time for governments now to act.

The Chinese Communist Party is in flagrant and repeated breach of international law. In Xinjiang, the regime is engaged in the destruction of a people, their religion, culture, language and identity. In Hong Kong, while no one suggests genocide, the regime has embarked on a campaign to destroy a system — the system of democracy, rule of law, human rights, freedoms and autonomy promised under an international treaty, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and the promise of “one country, two systems” made to Hong Kong as a foundation of its handover.

For both reasons, it should be clear to the world that this is not a regime to be trusted, and it should be held to account. I urge more countries to impose a diplomatic boycott on the Winter Olympics, and consumers to boycott the Games and its sponsors. It should forever be known as the Genocide Games, with which we should have no part. UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres should rethink his plan to attend as doing so would seriously undermine the moral authority of his office.

And as for what happens in the sham election by a genocidal regime which destroys democracy, I am sure Hong Kongers will find better things to do with their time than to cast a ballot that is not worth the paper it is written on.

* Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and deputy chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a board member of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign. He is the author of six books, and his faith journey is told in his book “From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church” (Gracewing, 2015). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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