HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s prodemocracy camp fears the movement could be dealt a further setback when voters go to the polls Sunday. The expected loss of seats in the territory’s legislature, democracy activists say, is the result of a system increasingly controlled by Beijing and stacked against them.
After months of street protests in 2014 failed to make Hong Kong’s elections more open, the protest leaders decided to run for office themselves. Several won seats in the Legislative Council in 2016, only to be removed after they modified their oaths of office.
Now, four of those six vacated seats are up for election Sunday. At least one is expected to go to the proestablishment camp, as beleaguered advocates for more direct democracy in Hong Kong are struggling in what they describe as a rigged system.
Members of the democratic camp say the rules, which have always favored the establishment, are tilted against them even more.
One democratic candidate was equivocal about the value of the seat he was pursuing, saying he felt that the local legislature was an increasingly powerless body.
“Being in the Legislative Council is quite limited,” said Au Nok-hin, who is seeking a seat representing Hong Kong Island. “Whatever policy changes, or whatever policy actions, right now are under strong power from Beijing.”
In Beijing on Sunday, China’s rubber-stamp legislature is expected to approve constitutional changes abolishing term limits for the president, Xi Jinping. Many Chinese dissenters view the move as a foreshadowing of greater political repression ahead.
Passage of the proposed amendment by the National People’s Congress’ nearly 3,000 hand-picked delegates is all but certain. But observers will be looking to see how many delegates abstain from voting as an indication of resistance within the political establishment.
The amendment upend a system enacted by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1982 to prevent a return to the bloody excesses of a lifelong dictatorship typified by Mao Zedong’s chaotic 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.
In Hong Kong, political analysts have called the current legislative race one of the quietest on record, with low turnout for rallies and no forum on the territory’s biggest free-to-air television network, TVB.
“The election atmosphere is not hot,” said Ivan Choy, a political scientist at Chinese University of Hong Kong. “So the democrats worry if they can mobilize all their voters.”
Voters directly elect half the members of Hong Kong’s legislature. The other half is picked by so-called functional constituencies, generally composed of members of a professional sector.
While the prodemocratic camp usually fares better than establishment candidates in elections for geographic constituencies, it faces some disadvantages. Pro-Beijing parties are better funded, more organized and dominate the functional constituencies.
And the democratic camp has faced a series of bruising court battles.
Under the Basic Law — the mini-constitution that has governed Hong Kong since Britain returned it to China in 1997 — the territory is granted a significant degree of autonomy.
Hong Kong maintains its own courts, government, and economic system under the policy of “one country, two systems.” That guarantee expires in 2047. What comes next is already a source of deep concern in Hong Kong, and many residents fear that Beijing is even now quietly chipping away at the Basic Law.
The Umbrella Movement protests of 2014 fueled the “localist” movement, which wants Hong Kong to pursue greater autonomy or even independence from China.
Hong Kong’s High Court disqualified six prodemocracy candidates who won seats in the Legislative Council in 2016 after they inserted anti-China snubs or otherwise modified their oaths of office.
Beijing weighed in, saying the Basic Law required officeholders to conduct their swearing-in ceremonies “sincerely and solemnly.”
With the six democracy lawmakers removed, the proestablishment camp was able to push through new rules in December that limited filibustering tactics frequently used by the opposition.
At least three candidates were barred from running this year by election officials. One of the prodemocratic camp’s leading prospects, Agnes Chow, was disqualified over her party’s stance that Hong Kong’s future after 2047 should be decided by referendum.
Hong Kong Watch, a London-based rights group, said the disqualifications meant the by-election was “tainted by government-sanctioned political screening” that “undermines Hong Kong’s rule of law and its reputation as a free and open city.” It called on the government to cancel the election and reinstate the lawmakers.
Au, who stood in as the prodemocratic candidate after Chow was barred, said his late start had put him at a disadvantage. Political analysts said the Hong Kong Island contest is likely to be the most closely fought of this by-election.