BEIJING (AP) — Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Wednesday endorsed Hong Kong’s first legislative elections held under new laws ensuring that only “patriots” who have shown loyalty to Beijing could run as candidates.
Sunday’s elections for the 90-seat Legislative Council were swept by politicians backed by China’s ruling Communist Party. Just 20 seats were directly elected, and the turnout of 30.2% was the lowest since the British handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997.
All candidates were vetted by a largely pro-Beijing committee before they could be nominated.
Xi told Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam in Beijing on Wednesday that after the elections, he is certain Hong Kongers 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 increasingly threadbare framework under which Hong Kong was to retain its own political, social and financial institutions for 50 years after being transferred from British rule.
“Our fellow Hong Kong citizens will promote the glorious tradition of loving their country and Hong Kong," Xi said.
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.
Responding to the criticisms following her meetings Wednesday, Lam called them “groundless" and said Xi had “refuted" them.
“The elections will serve Hong Kong’s interests better and will be a very good start for Hong Kong’s future democratic process,” Lam said.
She quoted Xi as saying the elections brought the territory “more in line with the real status of Hong Kong as a special administrative region under the principle of ‘one country, two systems,'" and would lead Hong Kong to a more democratic society.
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