A pro-democracy Lennon Wall in Hong Kong in 2014. Since June 2019, protesters have been demonstrating for, among other things, free elections in Hong Kong – even in the face of a draconian new national security law. Photo credit: Wikimedia/Thony Lam (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Freedom House Rating
Special Administrative Tegion of the People’s Republic of China
Legislative Council Elections
September 5, 2021
Local Elections (District Councils)
November 2023 (due)
Local Elections (District Councils)
November 24, 2019
Legislative Council Elections
September 4, 2016
Hong Kong plans to hold elections to the Legislative Council on September 5, 2021. These elections were due in September 2020, but were postponed for a year. The stated reason was COVID-19, but many in the pro-democracy camp believe the delay had more to do with political concerns.
These elections are taking place in the context of Beijing consolidating its power over Hong Kong and a draconian new security law that authorities have used to crush Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and criminalize dissent. The NGO Human Rights Watch calls the law “Beijing’s most aggressive assault on Hong Kong people’s freedoms since the transfer of sovereignty in 1997.” Hong Kong was supposed to be governed under the principle of “one country, two systems” until 2047 – fifty years after the handover from Britain to China – but China has effectively reneged on its commitment to that principle.
China imposed the security law in response to series of massive protests – with as many as 2 million people in the streets on at least one occasion – that began in June 2019. The proximate cause was a controversial extradition bill, but even though the bill was withdrawn, protesters persisted, calling for more democracy and free elections. China, unable to tolerate dissent, imposed the law on June 30, 2020, and waged a brutal crackdown on the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s politicians fall into two broad camps: pro-democracy and pro-Beijing (sometimes called pro-establishment). Within these camps, parties and independent candidates have diverse ideologies, ranging from free market to social democracy. The District Councils oversee local public works and community activities, and the Legislative Council (Legco) is Hong Kong’s de facto legislature.
Following the 2015 District Council elections, the pro-Beijing camp controlled all 18 councils, but the pro-democracy and localist camps held less than 30 percent of the seats. However, in the 2019 District Council elections, the pro-democracy camp won in a landslide: majorities in 17 out of the 18 councils, and nearly 90 percent of the seats on the councils. Furthermore, turnout was 70 percent, compared to 45 percent in 2015.
In the Legco, the pro-Beijing camp currently holds 43 seats out of 70, while the pro-democracy camp holds 24. However, in light of the protests and brutal crackdown by security forces, everyone expected the pro-democracy camp to make significant gains.
To that end, in July, just over a week after China’s new security law took effect, the pro-democracy camp held an unofficial primary in which 600,000 people voted. The purpose of the primary was to choose the strongest candidates and prevent a split in the pro-democracy vote. However, China declared the primaries illegal, and threatened to prosecute those involved. Additionally, Carrie Lam also said that the primaries might have violated the new security law.
Meanwhile, officials have banned a number of prominent pro-democracy politicians from running for seats in the Legco, and arrested activists. Although most Hong Kong residents oppose the security law, publicly objecting it is grounds for disqualification for public office, according to officials. Therefore, a number of pro-democracy groups have disbanded and ceased operations.
Moreover, China is further changing Hong Kong’s election rules to make sure that only “patriots” – as defined by the Chinese Communist Party – are able to run for office. In that vein, The Economist has downgraded Hong Kong from “flawed democracy” to “hybrid regime.” In short, democracy is in dire straits in Hong Kong.
China’s aggression in Hong Kong has impacted the way people around the world view China’s ambitions. In particular, it has resulted in more pro-independence sentiment in Taiwan. Moreover, a Pew Research Center survey found historically high unfavorable views of China around the world.
The Economist (February 27, 2021): China is mulling changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system
Rachel Cheung, World Politics Review (February 24, 2021): China Targets the Last Vestige of Hong Kong’s Democracy
Hong Kong Free Press (February 3, 2021): Hong Kong downgraded from ‘flawed democracy’ to ‘hybrid regime’ as city drops 12 places in Economist’s democracy index
Hong Kong Free Press (February 2, 2021): Explainer: How the national security law changed Hong Kong – month 7
Jen Kirby, Vox (January 26, 2021): A pro-democracy activist on Hong Kong’s year of turmoil: “The city itself is dying”
BBC (January 6, 2021): National security law: Hong Kong rounds up 53 pro-democracy activists
Jessie Lau, The Diplomat (November 19, 2020): The Impact of Hong Kong’s Opposition-Less Legislature
Jen Kirby, Vox (November 17, 2020): Hong Kong’s pro-democracy lawmakers quit en masse. One explains why.
Holmes Chan, Lowy Institute (November 16, 2020): End of the road for Hong
Kong’s opposition camp?
Hong Kong Free Press (October 18, 2020): Before and after – Hong Kong protest scenes one year on, Part 2
Austin Ramzy, Vivian Wang and Chris Buckley, New York Times (October 16, 2020): In Hong Kong, Communist Party Officials Stride Out of the Shadows
Crystal Wong, Angad Singh, Mac Chau, Vice (September 12, 2020): Hong Kong’s Delayed Election Is Bad for Democracy but Very Good for China
Ryan Ho Kilpatrick and Shibani Mahtani, Washington Post (September 6, 2020): Hong Kong protesters defy national security law, return to streets to oppose election delay
James Griffiths, CNN (August 11, 2020): Two weeks after it imposed a security law on Hong Kong, China says 600,000 people may have broken it
Natalie Lung and Iain Marlow, Bloomberg (July 30, 2020): Hong Kong Disqualifies 12 Pro-Democracy Activists From Election
Yanni Chow and Carol Mang, Reuters (July 31, 2020): Hong Kong delays election citing pandemic, but democracy camp sceptical
Natasha Khan, Wall Street Journal (July 14, 2020): China Says Unofficial Hong Kong Primaries Challenge Beijing’s New Powers
Mary Hui, Quartz (July 13, 2020): Over half a million Hong Kongers are potentially guilty of breaking the national security law
James Griffiths, CNN (July 13, 2020): 600,000 vote in Hong Kong opposition primary despite fears of new security law
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Updated February 26, 2021