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A man walks past a poster promoting the upcoming legislative elections in Hong Kong, November 23, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Kin Cheung

On December 19, Hong Kong election authorities will distribute ballots and boxes, monitor election materials, and tally results.

But despite the trimmings of democracy, this election will have no substance.

Hong Kong’s legislature is now devoid of meaningful political opposition. Beginning in 2016, Hong Kong authorities barred pro-democracy legislators from standing in elections or removed them from office after being elected. But these heavy-handed tactics failed to thwart people’s democratic aspirations: at the height of the 2019 protests, an unprecedented 71 percent of eligible voters turned out for local elections, demonstrating their deep commitment to political participation.   

That – and pro-democracy candidates’ landslide win – prompted the Chinese government to dismantle the city’s semi-democracy. It adopted a decision in November 2020 disqualifying Hong Kong legislators who “endangered national security,” which effectively purged the Legislative Council (LegCo) of democrats. It imposed a draconian National Security Law that was then used by Hong Kong authorities to bring charges against 47 activists and democrats in March 2021. Authorities accused them of “conspiracy of subversion” for participating in an unofficial primary in preparation for the LegCo elections. Conviction can result in life imprisonment. Dozens linger in detention without clear trial dates.

That same month, Beijing changed the electoral rules such that only Chinese Communist Party loyalists could win a seat on the LegCo. The Hong Kong government then outlawed calls to cast blank ballots and arrested those for reposting such calls.  Beijing-controlled newspapers threatened academics for polling the public about their voting intentions. No wonder: one poll showed only 52 percent of people were interested in voting, a 30 percent drop from previous years.

After banning, putting behind bars, and forcing pro-democracy candidates into exile, there is – for the first time – no genuine competition in the LegCo elections.

In classic doublespeak, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam – who owes her own political rise to profoundly undemocratic processes – praised the “overhaul” of the LegCo electoral system for enabling “broad representation” and “political inclusion.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. And many in Hong Kong will resist by refusing to play along.

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