Saturday 23 November 2019 9:00 am

Hong Kong under siege: Failing to hold District Council Elections would be an unforgivable betrayal

Lord Alton of Liverpool is a Crossbench Peer who serves on the House of Lords’ International Relations Select Committee. He is a patron of Hong Kong Watch and vice chair of the All-Party Group on Hong Kong

Tomorrow, voters in Hong Kong are expected to head to the polls in swathes, for what will be the most closely followed District Election in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover.

I will be flying out to monitor those elections as a member of an Election Observation Mission organised by the campaign group, Stand With Hong Kong.

Over the past five months, millions have marched through the streets of Hong Kong, and across the globe in solidarity with Hongkongers, demanding democratic reform and for their fundamental freedoms – underpinned in the singing of the Joint Sino-British Declaration – to be upheld.

Read more: Hong Kong’s local elections in spotlight after months of protests

There has been little evidence of functioning democracy in Hong Kong, if any at all, in recent months.

The situation on the ground has been catastrophic, diminishing as each day passes, deeply tarnishing the world view on China and underpinning the importance of a global response to the mass violations of human rights we have witnessed towards pro-democracy protestors from Beijing officials and the Hong Kong police force.

We have witnessed an unconstitutional ban on face masks, as voters fear being arrested merely for exercising their democratic right to protest.

Hong Kong police forces shot an unarmed 21-year-old student in the stomach at close range, a 57-year old man was set on fire while arguing with pro-Beijing demonstrators, a 22-year old fell off a building trying to escape police administered tear gas and a 15-year-old boy is also in a critical condition in hospital after he was hit on the head with a teargas canister on Wednesday.

Amid the inescapable turmoil and reckless loss of life, the election on Sunday offers Hongkongers a beacon of hope.

A record 4.1 million Hong Kong people have registered to vote for this election, with many voters seeing this vote as an opportunity to express their opinion in a legal and peaceful way.

But, in the last month alone, we have closely observed further break down in the ‘One Country: Two Systems’ approach. The free and fair elections which Hong Kong have conducted in the past, are very much that – a thing of the past. 

Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy activists, Joshua Wong, has been barred from running in Sunday’s district council elections.

Wong has helped lead the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong since 2014, and is the only candidate banned from running in the upcoming election.

He has been banned from traveling to the United Kingdom to receive The Westminster Award for Human Life, Human Rights and Human Dignity, so I am personally taking the Award with me to present it in Hong Kong. He has earned it.

Candidates, including Tommy Cheung Sau-yin, Mo Kai-hong, Liu Qing of the Democratic Party and Billy Chan Shiu-yeung of the Community Sha Tin have received letters from their Returning Officers to answer what they meant when they made anti-extradition comments on their social media accounts.

Other hopeful candidates received letters asking them to explain their stance on Hong Kong independence, in which they have had to deny their support.

Not only has the Chinese Government used its power to disqualify and scrutinise candidates as a tool to undermine the electability of the democrats, the Government has also made arbitrary arrests of democrat candidates and incumbent lawmakers over their involvement in the ongoing protests. 

It is likely that many more will be detained as election day nears to undermine their visibility and campaigning efforts. 

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has also discussed cancelling the elections. This, however, would be a deeply damaging and counterproductive move in this game of chess being played by Beijing. It would cause even more instability and divisions within society.

A peaceful, fair and just election conducted in an orderly manner is not only the right of the people of Hong Kong but also it would be a peaceful and rational way to resolve effectively the divisions in society.

China has attempted to undermine the sympathy for the protesters by changing the narrative to portray protesters as perpetrated by a minority of violent separatists in cahoots with foreign powers.

But a pro-democracy triumph at the ballot box could clear this fog of misinformation and destroy the nationalist-driven narrative put forth by Beijing.

The result could paint a clear picture of the sheer scale of dissatisfaction amongst Hongkongers. If Lam was to cancel these elections, this would destroy any credibility the administration has left in its promise to maintain the basic civic freedoms of its citizens.

Read more: FTSE 100 sinks after US-China trade tensions rise on Hong Kong violence

The elections won’t end the violence in Hong Kong, but they will give ordinary Hongkongers a peaceful voice. Cancelling them would only strengthen the case that Hong Kong is a long way away from a democracy.

As we move towards our own free and fair general election in the United Kingdom, the people of China enjoy no such privilege, living in a one-party state by whose repressive government thousands of pro-democracy campaigners were savagely massacred in Tiananmen Square.

Fear that this could happen in the former British colony should make us determined to stand with Hong Kong.

Lord Alton of Liverpool is a Crossbench Peer, a Patron of Hong Kong Watch, and an inaugural member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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