By Jessie Pang and Joyce Zhou
HONG KONG (Reuters) -Three Hong Kong pro-democracy activists were arrested on Sunday, just before voting began in a “patriots only” district election that has marginalised formerly popular opposition figures in the city amid a national security clampdown.
The pro-China government has been seeking to boost turnout, as some observers see large numbers spurning the polls, in contrast to the last council elections in 2019, during Hong Kong’s mass pro-democracy protests, which drew a record 71% turnout and a landslide victory for the democratic camp.
Police arrested three members of the “League of Social Democrats” in the Central business district, the group said. It had planned to protest against the “birdcage election” that it said lacked any democratic scope, given vetting requirements by authorities that have effectively barred all democrats from running.
“Hong Kong people’s right to vote and to be elected seems to be absent,” the group said in a statement, adding that they had been followed since leaving home in the morning.
Police said in a statement that they had arrested three people on suspicion of “attempting to incite others to carry out acts that disrupt district council election”. The three were detained for investigation.
Regulations introduced in July slashed the directly elected district council seats by nearly 80% from four years ago.
All candidates must now undergo national security background checks and secure nominations from pro-government committees. At least three pro-democracy groups, including moderates, and even some pro-Beijing figures failed to secure enough nominations.
‘HARD TO TALK ABOUT DEMOCRACY’
The changes further narrow electoral freedoms in the former colony that Britain returned to Chinese rule in 1997. The crackdown under a 2020 China-imposed national security law has led to the arrests of former district councillors and the disbandment of major opposition parties.
“It is the last piece of the puzzle for us to implement the principles of patriots governing Hong Kong,” Hong Kong leader John Lee said while casting his ballot with his wife, claiming that the previous poll in 2019 had been used to sabotage governance and endanger national security.
Security was tight around many polling stations with over ten thousand police deployed to maintain order.
While some western governments say the China-imposed national security law has been used to crack down on dissent, China says it has brought stability to the financial hub after the protracted pro-democracy protests of 2019.
For weeks the major pro-Beijing and pro-government parties have been out in force, campaigning and festooning streets with posters and flyers in a bid to bolster turnout. On Saturday night, a harbourfront carnival featuring fireworks and patriotic pop singers made last-minute appeals for people to vote.
Some were not convinced.
“The broad political spectrum of voices that we saw four years has all gone,” said Tang, a 27-year-old who said she would boycott the vote, asking to be identified only by her family name.
Turnout was 15.47% at 2:30 p.m. (0630 GMT), down from 42% at the same time in the previous election.
“It’s very hard to talk about democracy or democratisation anymore in today’s Hong Kong,” said Kenneth Chan, a political scientist at Hong Kong’s Baptist University and a former pro-democracy lawmaker.
“What they’re doing now is the installation of the so-called patriots-only governance structure.”
(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Joyce Zhou, Dorothy Kam and Edward Cho; Editing by James Pomfret and William Mallard)