by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Studio Incendo/Flickr/CC

TWELVE PRO-DEMOCRACY candidates running in the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) elections were disqualified from running yesterday. The Hong Kong government previously suggested that it delay LegCo elections by one year, using the current COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to do so. However, the Hong Kong government may be hedging its bets by also disqualifying pro-democracy candidates beforehand, eliminating choices apart from pro-Beijing candidates.

The disqualifications come on the heel of the arrest on Wednesday of four former members of Student Localism, a localist group that announced that it would be discontinuing its Hong Kong operations and only operating overseas. The four former members of Student Localism that were arrested were between sixteen and twenty-one years old. As they have not been released as of press time, some reports suggest that they will be directly sent to face trial, and will not be allowed bail.

Facebook post by Joshua Wong showing the notice he received regarding his disqualification

Despite government officials continuing to insist otherwise, the arrests prompted concerns that the Hong Kong government’s national security law would be retroactive, seeing as the four arrested were not active members of Student Localism. Likewise, the arrest prompted concerns that overseas groups could be targeted and, as the arrests were justified on the basis of a Facebook page run by Student Localism, this led to concerns that the enforcement of the national security law will have a particular focus on targeting individuals for social media activity.

Consequently, the disqualification of pro-democracy candidates continues the political crackdown conducted by the Hong Kong government in the past few days. As Beijing previously stated that the primary held by the pro-democracy camp to determine its choice of candidates in the LegCo elections violated the national security law, this raises questions as to whether the Hong Kong government will next move to arrest pro-democracy candidates, not being satisfied with just disqualifying them. Indeed, it is increasingly the case that the law in Hong Kong is simply whatever the government decides.

Moreover, it is a question whether any elections in Hong Kong whatsoever will be allowed, or whether this, too, will see interference from the Hong Kong government. The protests which have taken place in Hong Kong over the past year have been some of the largest protests by proportion in modern history, with close to two million Hongkongers out of a population of 7.45 million taking place—close to 30% of the Hong Kong population—taking part in some demonstrations. This being the case, the Hong Kong government is likely aware that LegCo elections are likely to see a repeat of the sweep by pro-democracy candidates in District Council elections last year.

The pro-democracy camp was likely expecting that many of its candidates would be disqualified and so will likely move to try and run its back-up candidates. Given candidate disqualifications that have taken place since 2016, starting when localist candidate Edward Leung was prevented from running for LegCo, the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong has adopted the tactic of swapping out candidates that are prevented from running for back-ups, who will then endorse the new candidates that run in their stead. However, back-ups could also be disqualified. Not all pro-democracy candidates were disqualified, though the disqualification of twelve candidates represents a large blow to the pro-democracy slate of candidates.

Facebook post by Gwyneth Ho regarding her disqualification

Among those disqualified are Joshua Wong,, former Hong Kong Federation of Students deputy secretary-general Lester Shum, and localists Alvin Cheung of Civic Passion and Ventus Lau. Gwyneth Ho, a former Stand News reporter who acquired the nickname of “Stand News Sister” (立場姐姐) for her live streams, was also disqualified, as was Kenneth Leung, a past LegCo member who formerly represented the Accountancy Functional Constituency.

Some of the disqualifications are not surprising, as with the disqualification of Wong, unquestionably one of the most high-profile pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, or the disqualification of localist candidates. At the same time, it has been noted that the Hong Kong government increasingly targets localists and more centrist pan-Democratic candidates alike, without drawing distinctions between their political positions. The Hong Kong government has increasingly demonstrated a declining interest in distinguishing between pro-democracy positions in past years, targeting them all alike as advocating for separatism and Hong Kong independence—even from groups and individuals that only call for greater autonomy for Hong Kong and the preservation of its democratic freedoms.

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