Hong Kong – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned Hong Kong’s decision to delay its Legislative Council elections by a year and urged the city’s government to reconsider.
“There is no valid reason for such a lengthy delay,” Pompeo said in a statement. “This regrettable action confirms that Beijing has no intention of upholding the commitments it made to the Hong Kong people and the United Kingdom under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a U.N.-registered treaty, and the Basic Law.”
Pompeo said Hong Kong authorities should hold the elections as close as possible to Sept. 6, the date for which they were originally scheduled. Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the postponement on Friday, citing a recent surge in COVID-19 cases.
The Asian financial hub saw 121 coronavirus infections on Friday after recording its highest tally yet on Thursday. The city is grappling with a new wave of cases that has seen tighter restrictions — including a two-person limit on public gatherings — that could further impact traditional campaigning.
“Delaying the Legislative Council election held every four years is a very difficult decision,” Lam said. “But in order to curb the pandemic, ensure public safety and citizens’ health, and meanwhile ensure the election is held under an open and fair environment, this decision is necessary.”
The government’s decision follows a week in which at least a dozen opposition candidates were banned and four activists arrested.
Lam said she was invoking an emergency powers ordinance to delay the vote and that the government’s decision to do so had the support of China’s central government. She said deploying as many as 34,000 election day volunteers across more than 600 polling stations to assist millions of voters was too dangerous under the circumstances. “It poses a great risk of infection,” she said.
The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, which reports to China’s State Council, said in a statement that the decision to delay the election “reflects a highly responsible attitude towards the life and health of Hong Kong citizens. It is very necessary, reasonable and legal, and the central government fully understands and agrees.”
The postponement of the vote until Sept. 5, 2021, comes after Hong Kong’s government drew new red lines on how much dissent it would tolerate — and stands to intensify global concerns about the preservation of basic freedoms in the financial hub. President Donald Trump had already started to roll back the city’s so-called special trading status amid wider tensions between the U.S. and China.
White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany told reporters on Friday that the election delay “undermines the democratic processes and freedoms that have underpinned Hong Kong’s prosperity, and this is only the most recent in a growing list of broken promises by Beijing.”
Pro-democracy advocates had hoped to ride the momentum of a landslide victory in last November’s District Council vote to an unprecedented majority in the legislature. They are already reeling from the Beijing-imposed national security law in June, which has been widely criticized and led to punitive measures by the Trump administration.
Hong Kong’s government last week banned opposition candidates and arrested activists under the sweeping security law for comments made online. That led to international condemnation from the U.S., Australia, U.K., while local democracy activists and human rights groups said that the city’s government was suppressing free speech among opposition groups.
Opposition lawmaker Fernando Cheung said the delay and the candidates’ disqualification amounted to “nothing less than election fraud.”
“The pandemic was used purely as an excuse. The real reason for the delay is that the CCP is afraid it will lose by a landslide, much like what happened in the district elections in November last year,” he said, referring to China’s ruling Communist Party. “This is blatant repression and the decision itself is unconstitutional.”
About 55 percent of people answering a recent survey believed the Legislative Council election should go ahead as planned on Sept. 6 despite the pandemic, according to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Program, which polled 8,805 respondents between July 27 and 30. Some 21 percent thought the election should be postponed by no more than six months.
The restrictions on Hong Kong pro-democracy activists and opposition politicians have increased dramatically since Beijing drafted and imposed the national security law, bypassing the city’s legislature. The new legislation bars subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, with punishments as harsh as life in prison.
Lam’s administration and the central government in Beijing have both defended the law as a way to restore stability and prosperity to Hong Kong after sometimes-violent protests last year helped push the city into a recession — only to be battered again by the pandemic. But lawyers and activists have said the law’s vaguely worded clauses could be used to silence dissidents and political opponents.
In a statement justifying the disqualification of the opposition figures last week, Hong Kong’s government said lobbying foreign governments and even “expressing an objection in principle to the enactment of the National Security Law” were both grounds for barring politicians from holding office.
Prominent activist Joshua Wong, one of the barred candidates, said in a statement Friday that the Beijing-drafted law was “a legal weapon used against dissidents.”
“The national security law is how Beijing criminalized freedom of speech, but no matter what, we won’t bow down and we choose not to surrender to China,” he said at a separate press conference. “My political career doesn’t depend on the election. It depends on the Hong Kong people.”