Hong Kong Sees Lowest Voter Turnout Since 1997 for China-Endorsed Elections

On Sunday, Hong Kong's legislative elections saw a voter turnout of just 30.2 percent, the lowest voter turnout since 1997, when Britain handed the city over to China. The low voter engagement came as the elections were held for the first time under new laws that only allow "patriots" loyal to Beijing to run for seats in the Legislative Council.

All candidates seeking a seat had to undergo a vetting process by a committee that was for the most part pro-Beijing. Additionally, just 20 roles on the 90-seat council were elected directly by voters, while others were appointed by mostly pro-Beijing bodies.

Politicians with the support of China's ruling Communist Party swept the Sunday elections, which earned Chinese President Xi Jinping's endorsement on Wednesday. He told Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam that now he believes residents of the city will join in "realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation."

"The execution of the new election system adheres to the 'one country, two systems' principle," Xi said, referring to the seemingly decaying framework that allowed Hong Kong to maintain separate political, social and legal arrangements from China for 50 years after being handed over by Britain.

"Our fellow Hong Kong citizens will promote the glorious tradition of loving their country and Hong Kong," he added.

Hong Kong Election Turnout
Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam met with top leaders in Beijing on Wednesday to report to them on the territory's first legislative elections held under new laws ensuring that only "patriots" loyal to the ruling Chinese Communist Party could run as candidates. Lam, left, speaks as Eric Chan, director of the Chief Executive's Office, listens during a press conference in Beijing, Wednesday, December 22, 2021. Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo

The elections had been postponed for a year — ostensibly due to a spike in COVID-19 cases — after the opposition swept elections for district counselors.

They followed widespread and increasingly violent anti-government protests in 2019 that prompted Beijing to impose a sweeping National Security Law on Hong Kong, followed by a reorganization of the electoral process and transformation of the makeup of the Legislative Council to stack it with pro-Beijing loyalists.

The opposition camp criticized the elections, with the largest pro-democracy party, the Democratic Party, fielding no candidates for the first time since the 1997 handover.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Monday there were "multiple reasons" for the decline in voter turnout.

"It is not only the impact of the pandemic, but also the disruption and sabotage of anti-China elements in Hong Kong and external forces," Zhao said at a daily briefing.

Some overseas pro-democracy activists, including London-based Nathan Law, had urged a boycott of the vote, saying the elections were undemocratic. Under the new election laws, incitement to boycott the voting or to cast invalid votes could be punished by up to three years in jail and a 200,000 Hong Kong dollar ($26,500) fine.

Prior to her departure for Beijing, Lam, who is under a U.S. visa ban, said she expected to "cover a wide range of issues on this particular duty visit because through two very decisive acts of the central authorities, Hong Kong is now back on the right track of 'one country, two systems.'"

In a joint statement released by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the foreign ministers of Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States expressed "grave concern" over the erosion of democratic elements of Hong Kong's electoral system and growing restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly.

"Protecting space for peaceful alternative views is the most effective way to ensure the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong," they said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Hong Kong Election Winners
Pro-Beijing candidates dominated Hong Kong’s legislative elections, beating out moderates and independents in the city’s first public poll after Beijing passed a resolution to amend the city’s election laws. Members of New People's Party, from left, Judy Chan, Eunice Yung, Lai Tung-kwok, Regina Ip, Dominic Lee and Marcus Liu pose for a photograph during a press conference after winning the legislative election in Hong Kong, Monday, December 20, 2021. Kin Cheung/AP Photo