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Police officers stand guard outside a polling station on Dec. 19, 2021, in Hong Kong.Louise Delmotte/Getty Images

Hong Kong’s shopping streets, country parks and tourist attractions were packed Sunday as people took advantage of balmy weather and free public transportation for election day. Few, however, cast their votes, leaving turnout in the city’s legislative election, its first under a new “patriots-only” system, at an all-time low.

In a statement after polls closed Sunday night, Hong Kong’s Beijing-appointed leader, Carrie Lam, thanked those who took part in the vote, saying their ballots were not only for individual candidates but “also a show of support for the improved electoral system.”

If that is the case, the message was not a strong one. The turnout was 30.2 per cent – 9 percentage points lower than the previous low in 1991. Some 1.3 million people cast ballots on Sunday, almost one million fewer than in the last legislative election in 2016, when turnout was 58.2 per cent.

Ms. Lam will be able to explain the results to her bosses in person Monday, when she flies up to Beijing for a regular briefing with top Chinese leaders. The trip will be the last of her five-year term, with all eyes on whether Beijing will allow her to stay on when a highly choreographed selection process is held in March, 2022.

Beijing imposed the new electoral system last year, shortly after it introduced a national security law that banned subversion, secession and collusion with foreign forces. That law has powered a sweeping crackdown on the city’s opposition, while the electoral reforms effectively ensured any prominent pro-democracy activists not in prison or exile would be unable to run for office.

Where voters previously chose half of the city’s Legislative Council (or LegCo), under the new system only 20 of 90 seats are directly elected by the public, and not freely. All candidates had to be prevetted for their “patriotism” by a 1,500-member pro-Beijing Election Committee. That committee, representing just 0.02 per cent of the city’s population, will choose 40 members, with the remaining 30 picked by small-circle professional groups known as functional constituencies.

The new council will be essentially opposition free. None of the self-identified democrats or “non-pro-establishment” candidates who made it through the vetting process were elected.

The new system has been widely denounced by opposition figures and international organizations. In a statement, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, a group of global lawmakers, said Sunday’s elections “mark a sobering milestone in the Chinese government’s dismantling of Hong Kong’s democracy, freedoms and autonomy.”

Writing in the New York Times, Nathan Law, a former Hong Kong legislator now in exile in the U.K., said that under the new system, “democratic leaders have no realistic hopes of entering the legislative chamber.” Mr. Law and others had called for Hong Kongers to boycott Sunday’s vote. The authorities here have said such calls are illegal. Beijing has issued arrest warrants for dissidents overseas and detained several people for sharing posts encouraging locals not to take part.

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People walk past a largely empty polling station in Tiu Keng Leng, a neighbourhood in Hong Kong's New Territories, during legislative elections on Sunday, December 19, 2021.

People walk past a largely empty polling station in Tiu Keng Leng, a neighbourhood in Hong Kong's New Territories, during legislative elections on Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021.James Griffiths/Globe and Mail/James Griffiths/Globe and Mail

Whether in response to those calls, or just because of a lack of enthusiasm for the new, opposition-free system, a majority of eligible voters stayed away Sunday.

“It’s hugely embarrassing for everybody involved,” said Kenneth Chan, a political scientist at Hong Kong’s Baptist University. “It’s going to affect the legitimacy of the entire system, not just LegCo but the entire system of governance.”

“The government tried very hard to encourage people to vote, but they could not come up with a consistent narrative. They definitely did not appeal to the majority of Hong Kong citizens who vote for the pro-democracy camp.”

The city’s 2016 legislative election and its local election in 2019 (when turnout reached 71 per cent) were both landslide victories for pro-democracy parties, though almost all opposition lawmakers elected as a result have since been disqualified or resigned as a result of the security law.

Outside a North Point polling station, a prospective voter who gave his name as Anthony told The Globe and Mail that “voting is important, but the candidates aren’t very good.” Smoking a cigarette and clutching election materials, he said he’d cast ballots in the past two elections, “but I’m conflicted about voting today, I’m trying to make up my mind.” Five minutes later, cigarette finished, Anthony said “I’ve made my decision.” He went home without voting.

Throughout the day, officials and pro-Beijing candidates alternated between dismissing concerns about low turnout to frantically urging supporters to come out and vote. Chinese state media, meanwhile, painted an almost unrecognizable picture of the city, where voters were flocking to the polls in droves and hailing a “new era for local governance.”

Speaking after she cast her own ballot early Sunday, Ms. Lam said the government “has not set any target for the voter turnout rate.” She said the 2019 polls, which came amid massive anti-government protests, were reflective of “a situation where people were very fearful of things happening around in society. There were still a lot of riots, petrol bombs, intimidation and illegal activities happening.”

“This is not the environment that would produce what we called, or what we regarded as democracy,” she said of the election with the highest turnout in the city’s history. (At the time, in 2019, Ms. Lam described the vote as having taken place “in a peaceful, safe and orderly manner” and said her government respected the results.)

In an interview with state media last week, Ms. Lam suggested a low turnout could actually be a sign of voters’ approval, as “people do not have a strong demand to choose different lawmakers to supervise the government,” though she later backed away from this remark.

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A bus with an election advert passes a busy shopping area in Hong Kong's Causeway Bay neighbourhood on Sunday, December 19, 2021.

A bus with an election advert passes a busy shopping area in Hong Kong's Causeway Bay neighbourhood on Sunday, Dec. 19, 2021.James Griffiths/Globe and Mail/James Griffiths/Globe and Mail

As it became clear Sunday just how few voters were participating, establishment candidates blamed a range of factors, from supposed poor messaging about redistricting that left people confused about which constituency they were a part of, to the decision to provide free transportation for the day, which people used to go shopping and visit country parks rather than vote.

With the majority of registered voters leaning pro-democratic, those most affected by the low turnout were the handful of opposition-leaning candidates who made it through the vetting process. Speaking to The Globe before polls closed Sunday, one self-identified democrat, Nelson Wong, said while he felt he had a decent chance, “of course” he would struggle if pro-democracy voters stayed home.

In the end, Mr. Wong did not come close, only garnering a few thousand votes.

Mr. Chan, the analyst, said opposition-leaning candidates had “completely failed to connect and engage the pro-establishment base.”

“The fact that they managed to get through the vetting process should have meant something – that at least they were seen as non-trouble-making by the government,” he said. “But during debates they were used as punching bags by the pro-Beijing candidates. They became proxies for everything bad in the view of [that] camp and didn’t get much sympathy from opposition voters either.”

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