Hong Kong’s democracy supporters were dealt a huge blow Friday as authorities postponed local elections for a year because of the coronavirus, capping a devastating month of political disqualifications, arrests for social media posts and activists fleeing overseas.
The city’s democracy camp has come under sustained attack since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law last month — a move China’s leaders described as a “sword” hanging over the head of its critics.
The ensuing weeks have sent a chill through a city used to speaking its mind and supposedly guaranteed certain freedoms and autonomy in a “One Country, Two Systems” deal agreed ahead of its 1997 handover from Britain.
On Friday evening chief executive Carrie Lam, a pro-Beijing appointee, announced that September elections for the financial hub’s legislature would be delayed for a year using emergency anti-virus powers.
She denied the move was a political decision to hobble the city’s opposition.
“I am only paying attention to the current pandemic situation,” she said.
Beijing welcomed the move as “necessary, reasonable and legal”.
But the decision infuriated democracy supporters who had warned against any move to delay the polls, accusing authorities of using the COVID-19 pandemic to avoid a drubbing at the ballot box.
“This is a sleazy, contemptible political act to help thwart any victory on the part of the democrats in the original election,” opposition lawmaker Claudia Mo told AFP, warning that public anger could explode.
The postponement came a day after a dozen prominent democracy activists were barred from standing for election because their political views were deemed unacceptable.
“Beyond any doubt (this) is the most scandalous election fraud era in Hong Kong history,” Joshua Wong, one of the city’s most recognisable democracy figures, told reporters Friday before the elections were postponed.
Wong was one of those disqualified, along with other young firebrand activists and some older, more moderate democracy campaigners.