Hong Kong will delay upcoming elections for the city’s Legislative Council for a year, the city’s leader Carrie Lam announced Friday.
The move follows the decision Thursday to block 12 pro-democracy candidates — including the prominent protest leader Joshua Wong — from standing in the September elections for reasons including expressing opposition to the controversial new national security law that was imposed on the city by Beijing on June 30.
Speaking in a press conference, Lam cited the worsening COVID-19 situation as the reason for the election’s delay, but the opposition say the move is a further indication of Beijing’s tightening hold on the former British colony.
“We face a dire situation in our fight against the virus,” Lam said through a translator. “The announcement I have to make today is the most difficult decision I have had to make in the past seven months”
“It is a really tough decision to delay it but we want to insure fairness and make sure the elections are held in an open fair and impartial manner.”
Lam added that 4.4 million people, including 600,000 elderly, are registered to vote and polling stations could present a significant health risk. She said that 68 countries have deferred or delayed elections due to the coronavirus.
Hong Kong reported over 100 new cases a day for the last 10 days with 121 new cases recorded Friday. At the peak of the initial outbreak on March 29, the territory reported just 82 new cases.
The 70-seat Legislative Council sets and amends Hong Kong’s laws, but only 35 seats are directly elected by the public. Opposition pro-democracy groups hold 22 of the seats and had hoped to improve on that count and even win a majority by capitalizing on opposition to the new legislation.
The grouping of 22 pro-democracy members released a statement accusing the government of using the pandemic to obstruct the election and deprive Hong Kongers of their voting rights.
“Beyond any doubt, it is the most scandalous election fraud ever in HK history,” Wong said in a statement that followed his disqualification.
“The HK-style election has never been free and fair since 2016 when candidates like Edward Leung, Nathan Law and Agnes Chow were disqualified one by one from the election,” he added.
The delay follows the arrest late Wednesday of four former members of the pro-democracy group Studentlocalism for allegedly calling for Hong Kong’s independence, an illegal act under the new national security law. However Studentlocalism had joined other groups in rebranding social media accounts that could breach the new legislation before it came into force.
Pro-democracy activists called on the international community to respond. Nathan Law urged foreign powers to react strongly and place sanctions on individuals including Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
The situation in Hong Kong is just one of a number of major flashpoints in the worsening diplomatic spat between China and western powers.
The U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand all suspended extradition treaties with Hong Kong in light of the new national security law which they say breaches the handover agreement with Britain that returned the former colony to Chinese sovereignty. Under that agreement, the freedoms Hong Kong enjoyed relative to the rest of China were guaranteed to continue until 2047.
The U.S. has also angered China by closing the country’s consulate in Houston — citing China’s alleged involvement in intellectual property theft — and blaming the country for the coronavirus pandemic. China responded by closing the U.S. consulate in Chengdu.