Democracy suffers another blow in Hong Kong election

A sign that reads, "We want democracy now!" from the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests. (Credit: Jimmy Lau / Flickr)

Democracy took a few steps back in Hong Kong this week after Beijing’s preferred candidate, Carrie Lam, won the seat of chief executive of the semiautonomous region on Sunday. Just hours later, police arrested nine leaders and participants of the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. Now, the city is facing what could be its biggest data breach ever after the electoral office revealed the theft of two laptops containing the private information of 3.7 million registered voters.

Despite polls leading up to the election that showed Lam, 59, lagging in popularity by as much as 20 percentage points, a preselected committee of 1,194 electors voted her into office on Sunday. The career civil servant defeated popular former financial secretary John Tsang and former judge Woo Kwok-hing.

The voter committee, which has been a part of Hong Kong’s electoral process since Britain returned the region to China in 1997, is made up of individuals hand-selected from the business and political establishment with heavy influence from Beijing. Critics, therefore, are calling it a “non-election” or a “selection, not an election,” as the 1,194 eligible voters are only 0.03 percent of the city’s 3.7 million registered voters.

“This result is a nightmare to Hong Kongers,” Nathan Law, a pro-democracy legislator, told the Guardian after the vote. “Lam’s victory despite her lack of representation and popular support reflects the Chinese Communist party’s complete control over Hong Kong’s electoral process and its serious intrusion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.”

Lam is considered as “equally hard-line” as the outgoing chief executive and unpopular Beijing-loyalist Leung Chun-ying, under whom Lam served as deputy. Dissatisfaction with Leung’s rule lead to the massive Occupy Central protests and youth-led Umbrella Movement. Although the immediate demands of the protests were not met – removing Leung from office and real universal suffrage – the pro-democracy movement has continued to gain momentum in recent months, especially in the local legislature.

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In her acceptance speech on Sunday, Lam vowed to heal the political divide in the city, “tap the forces of our young people” and uphold Hong Kong’s “core values” of “inclusiveness, freedoms of the press and of speech, respect for human rights” and, of course, Beijing’s favorite – the rule of law.

“Hong Kong, our home, is suffering from quite a serious divisiveness and has accumulated a lot of frustrations,” she said, according to BBC. “My priority will be to heal the divide.”

But on Monday, the government announced it would press charges against nine people involved in the 2014 protests for creating a public nuisance – a charge that carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years. All nine surrendered to police, surrounded by activists.

Those arrested include politicians Tanya Chan and Shiu Ka-chun, former student protest leaders Eason Chung and Tommy Cheung, Occupy Central movement founders Benny Tai, Rev Chu Yiu-ming and Chan Kin-man, activist Raphael Wong and legislator Lee Wing-tat. If Chan or Shiu are jailed for more than one month, they risk losing their seats on the legislative council.

“This isn’t just my case being prosecuted, it’s prosecution against Hong Kong’s democracy,” Chan told the Guardian. “Lam said her first job would be to reunite Hong Kong people, and this will make that task much more difficult.”

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Because Lam says she was unaware of the arrests before they happened, some speculate that Leung deliberately set her up. But Lam denied it, emphasizing again, the rule of law.

“Prosecution actions are undertaken independently by the Department of Justice, under the Basic Law. I made it very clear that I want to unite society and bridge the divide that has been causing us concern. But all these actions should not compromise the rule of law in Hong Kong,” she said in a press conference.

But even the rule of law is being tested in this election. Police received reports late Monday that two laptops containing the private information of 3.7 million registered voters were stolen out of a locked room at the “fallback venue” for the election.

Although the information – including identification numbers, addresses and mobile numbers – is encrypted and there is no indication anything has been leaked yet, some say this could be Hong Kong’s most significant data breach ever.

The public response has been harsh and snide, as registered voters question why their information was necessary if they can’t even vote.

Meanwhile, Beijing plans to strengthen its authority over Hong Kong through “legal means,” two mainland government advisers said yesterday. They said that China will not to interfere frequently with internal matters in accordance with the agreed-upon system of autonomy. However, they want to “ensure Beijing’s authority over ‘principle issues’ – such as sovereignty and national security – is protected,” according to the South China Morning Post.

Authority in the name of security, it seems, is the new world order.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.