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Campaign staff work to promote Legislative Council member Regina Ip, who will run in the city's upcoming Legislative Council election in December, in Hong Kong's Wanchai area on Nov. 28, 2021.BERTHA WANG/AFP/Getty Images

Dressed in a red hoodie and blue face mask, flanked by life-sized posters of himself, Vincent Cheng traversed western Kowloon on Sunday, lobbying Hong Kongers for their votes in an election most observers expect to have among the lowest turnouts in the city’s history.

One of the drivers of this lack of enthusiasm could be seen the following day, near where Mr. Cheng, a candidate for the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, or DAB, was campaigning hours before. Inside the imposing West Kowloon magistrates’ court building, 47 defendants, as well as a host of lawyers and supporters, crammed into an expanded hearing room for the latest stage of a national security trial that has implicated almost every prominent opposition figure.

The case was deferred on procedural grounds for the fourth time Monday, to March, 2022. By that point, most of the defendants – almost all of whom have been denied bail – will have been in jail for more than a year.

They were detained for taking part in unofficial primaries for the election now being fought outside the court, with the hope of thinning the field of pro-democracy candidates to give the opposition the best possible chance of winning a majority in the Legislative Council, or LegCo. The authorities said this plan – which would have, if successful, given the opposition the power to reject government budgets and even force Hong Kong’s chief executive to resign – constituted subversion under the national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing last year. If convicted, the 47 are facing at least three years in prison and potentially more than a decade, or even life should their crime be deemed “of a grave nature.”

Their case, along with a concerted national security crackdown on civil society groups, has cast a pall over the LegCo election scheduled for Dec. 19, even as the government has attempted to paint it in a positive light and dismissed concerns about record-low turnout.

Whether voters do participate in large numbers, their power has been majorly curtailed since 2016, when they elected the most radical LegCo in the city’s history. Under electoral reforms in the wake of the security law, the number of seats has been expanded to 90 from 70, but only 20 of those will be directly elected, down from 35.

All other seats will be chosen by functional constituencies, trade-based groupings that reliably return pro-government candidates, and the 1,500-member Election Committee, a Beijing-controlled chamber of Hong Kong’s elite that previously chose the city’s leader but has been given new powers not only to select 40 members of LegCo directly, but also vet candidates for all other constituencies.

As a result of these changes, most of the traditional opposition parties are boycotting the election, while even self-described “centrists” or “independent democrats” have struggled to gain the requisite approval of committee members to run.

Johnny Patterson, policy director at Hong Kong Watch, a British-based lobby group, denounced the coming vote as a “total sham.”

“If you go to the market and are forced to choose between a rotten apple, rotten orange and rotten tomato, is that really a choice?” he said. “This is no longer a democratic election.”

A review of election materials provided by the 153 hopefuls for the 20 directly elected seats found that only four advocate for universal suffrage, a typical demand of previous elections, with many candidates echoing government talking points, or even, in the case of legal constituency candidate Chen Xiaofeng, running on a platform of “no change.”

The most openly oppositional candidate, per his campaign literature, is Nelson Wong, a former Democratic Party lawmaker who quit the party in 2015. “Tyranny and violence will not succeed,” he said in an election advert. “The road to democracy must not be given up, we must contend every inch.”

“I don’t know why I’m the only one to speak up for Hong Kong people in this way,” Mr. Wong said in an interview, adding that even if he doesn’t gain a seat, “I had the opportunity to speak up by joining this election, so in a way I have already won.”

How successful Mr. Wong’s campaign, let alone the more milquetoast messaging of many centrist candidates, will be at turning out traditional pro-democracy voters remains to be seen. A recent survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, an independent think tank, found only 50 per cent of respondents were planning to vote in next month’s election, the lowest figure since 1991.

In 2019, more than 70 per cent of voters took part in local elections that were seen as a major rebuke to the government, flipping all but one district council to opposition control. By comparison, even some pro-Beijing figures have predicted the turnout for December’s election could be as low as 20 per cent.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Wong said some people reacted enthusiastically, telling him “of all the candidates, only you are speaking from the heart.” Others however, were critical of his decision to stand.

Those opposition-leaning candidates who are standing may find little support among the public. At a forum on Sunday, Mr. Cheng, the DAB candidate in Kowloon West, attacked his pro-democracy opponent, Frederick Fung, saying he had “no friends and no allies” and was “stuck playing in midfield by himself.”

He also challenged Mr. Fung on his support for anti-sedition legislation, highlighting another problem for government critics: Go too far, especially criticizing policies pushed by Beijing, and they could face disqualification or even prosecution.

In a recent column in the Ming Pao newspaper, Cheung Chi-kong, who sits on both the Election Committee and a Chinese government advisory body, warned it may be “very problematic” for candidates to even describe themselves as “non-pro-establishment,” given the implied criticism of the current, Beijing-endorsed system.

“You can label yourself ‘pro-democracy,’ but you must also be pro-establishment,” he said.

Multiple candidates declined or did not respond to requests for interview from The Globe and Mail.

Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary, John Lee, has defended the coming vote as “competitive” and said the legislature would not be an “echo chamber.”

“In past elections, candidates who were anti-China and aimed to disrupt Hong Kong would always oppose [Beijing] and the government,” he wrote in a blog post on Saturday. “They rarely discussed their platforms or exchanged policy proposals in a serious manner. This election is much different.”

About 10,000 police officers will be deployed on election day to guard against any potential protests, and Mr. Lee and other officials have warned that advocating for people to boycott the polls or spoil their ballots is illegal. On Monday, authorities issued an arrest warrant for former lawmaker Ted Hui, in exile in Australia, for urging people to cast protest votes.

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