More than 600,000 Hong Kongers voted in the opposition camp’s primaries over the weekend, an unofficial poll that was aimed at consolidating support around the strongest candidates ahead of September’s legislative elections, as well as a protest against the national security law imposed by Beijing.
China is now saying the entire election—which saw lingerie shops, neighborhood diners, and a vintage double-decker bus transformed into makeshift polling stations—was “blatantly illegal” and in breach of the national security law. In a statement (link in Chinese) issued late yesterday, Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong accused the democratic camp of colluding with “external forces” to hold the primaries, collecting vast amounts of voter information and undermining data privacy, and “severely undermining” the public’s right to free and fair elections. The Hong Kong government, meanwhile, said it has launched an investigation into whether the primaries could amount to an act of subversion—a crime punishable by up to life imprisonment under the national security law.
The national security law, drafted and unilaterally imposed by Beijing last month, broadly criminalizes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, and also for the first time authorizes mainland security agents to operate directly in Hong Kong. But the law is deliberately written in such vague terms that anything can plausibly be deemed illegal, despite the government’s repeated assurances that it will only target a small minority.
Government officials had already made threats against the democratic primaries in the days leading up to the polls. Hong Kong’s mainland affairs minister warned last week that the election could be illegal, and police raided the offices of an independent pollster and co-organizer of the election on the eve of the vote. The raid, which police said was conducted on the suspicion that the polling institute’s computers had been hacked, delayed the start time of the next morning’s vote by several hours. Robert Chung, the pollster’s executive director, acknowledged that some computers at the research center had recently been hacked but denied claims that personal data from past surveys had been leaked.
The Hong Kong and Beijing governments’ swift, coordinated, and hostile condemnation of the democratic primaries makes one thing abundantly clear: all opposition against the state is a crime. While China has cracked down on the protest movement—which at times spilled over into violence and vandalism—ostensibly because it undermined law and order, Beijing’s targeting of an entirely peaceful election highlights its singular underlying fear of even the slightest challenge to its absolute hold on power.
Beijing’s latest statement against the primaries also notably singles out Benny Tai, an organizer of the election. Tai, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, was jailed last year for his role in orchestrating the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, which paralyzed large swathes of the city for months. That Beijing is now explicitly calling him out and accusing him of trying to foment a “color revolution” suggests that he will be a prime target of political persecution.
The Hong Kong government’s strategy of shutting off all avenues of opposition is not new, of course. After key leaders of the Umbrella Movement were jailed, activists and protesters turned their focus to winning seats in the legislature. But the government put a chokehold on that, too, devising an obscure legal mechanism to disqualify democratically elected opposition lawmakers. Then came June 2019, when millions marched peacefully to oppose a controversial extradition bill—only for their demands to largely fall on deaf ears. When protesters stormed the legislature the following month, someone scrawled on a pillar, “It was you who taught me peaceful marches are useless.” Protesters then became increasingly tolerant of more forceful tactics, which authorities condemned as “terrorism.” And now, with the national security law and public health measures effectively outlawing any kind of large-scale street demonstrations, protesters have once again turned to the ballot boxes—only for that to be condemned as illegal, too.
In short, the reality of Beijing’s full-scale crackdown on Hong Kong becomes clearer by the day: the national security law does not protect “legitimate rights,” nor does it only target an “extremely small minority.” Rather, it is an all-encompassing tool to criminalize all opposition to the state.