A file photo shows protesters storming into the main chamber of Hong Kong's Legislative Council complex on July 1, 2019. Photo: Facebook

Give us at least 35 seats and we will veto all bills tabled by the authorities, including the annual budget, to cripple the government.

That is the avowed election goal of Hong Kong’s pan-democratic bloc as the city gears up for September’s high-stakes Legislative Council election.

Previously, Beijing cadres and their subordinates running the city’s government believed most voters would not back such a radical platform to paralyze the city and force Beijing’s hand, but the outcome of the unofficial primaries during the past weekend has put paid to such thoughts.

The record voter turnout at the weekend polls buoyed the city’s democrats as they mustered more support for their tilt at grabbing a simple majority in the territory’s 70-seat legislature.

Undaunted by a resurgence of coronavirus cases and unbowed by the national security law Beijing has imposed on the city, no less than 610,000 Hongkongers braved the scorching heat to cast ballots.

Crowds that thronged polling stations cranked up more heat in the city’s political arena, triggering strong rhetoric from Beijing that warned organizers and voters they may fall foul of the new security law.

Hong Kong politics and the wellbeing of its free society, once guaranteed by Beijing upon its return from Britain, are under the full glare of the West, with Washington, London and their allies condemning Beijing’s perceived subjugation of the territory.

Washington has cited the security law that bypassed the city’s lawmakers as a glaring example of Beijing’s encroachment. US President Donald Trump has signed the bipartisan Hong Kong Autonomy Act into law on Tuesday to sanction Chinese officials and revoke preferential treatment for the city.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US would be watching closely how September’s election would be held.

Yet Beijing is not backing down. In the verbal volleys fired by the Chinese State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and Beijing’s liaison office in the city, Beijing has called the primaries and bid to stall government funding an open revolt against its authority.

The two offices also assailed Benny Tai, a law scholar with the University of Hong Kong who coordinated the polls, calling him an instigator bent on grabbing power in Hong Kong to force Beijing into acquiescing to the opposition’s demands.

About 610,000 Hongkongers voted in the primaries held over the past weekend, with a voter turnout much higher than previously thought. Photo: Facebook
HKU law scholar Benny Tai has been singled out and lashed by Beijing for organizing the primaries for the opposition camp to muster more support. Photo: Handout

Beijing is also assessing if the opposition will drum up more resistance after mainstream democrats lost out to a number of ardent localists including Joshua Wong during the primaries. It is reported that all candidates for the primaries pledged to scupper any funding proposal by the government once elected.

Moving in lockstep with Beijing, Hong Kong’s government has also vowed to launch probes into the primaries, which it said severely “jeopardized the integrity of the electoral process.” It went so far as to suggest that the actions of organizers and voters may have constituted subversion under Article 22 of the security law, which criminalizes interfering, disrupting or undermining the performance of the central and city governments.

“The ordinance of election in Hong Kong will not recognize nor approve the format, procedure and results of the so-called ‘primaries’ held by the pro-democratic camp,” read a statement from the government.  

In response, leading stalwarts in the opposition coalition, including HKU’s Tai, question if Beijing has just applied the term “concocted intentions” to the hundreds of thousands of voters exercising their constitutional rights.

Tai, who also spearheaded the city’s Occupy Central protests in 2014 to stoke opposition to Beijing’s offer of a universal suffrage package, insisted that the weekend polls had brought out massive crowds, and with the clear mandate opposition lawmakers would be able to veto budgets, a right enshrined in the city’s laws to scrutinize the government.

“There is nothing illegal about vetoing budgets, as lawmakers have the power according to the city’s laws to make the government more accountable. It would be preposterous to incriminate voters and candidates for subversion,” he said.

Hong Kong’s latest budget, totaling HK$627.2 billion (US$81 billion) for the financial year 2020-21, was passed by the legislature in May with 42 pro-establishment lawmakers voting yes versus 23 objections from opposition members.

Opposition lawmaker protests inside the LegCo chamber during a debate on the government’s 2020-21 budget. Photo: Facebook

Still, Beijing’s ire has forced at least one of Tai’s cohorts to bow out. Au Nok-hin, a former Democratic Party legislator, said on Facebook that “withdrawal is the only choice to protect myself and others.” 

Eric Cheung, Tai’s colleague at HKU’s law school, said that whether organizers of the primaries would be prosecuted and opposition candidates disqualified would be a clear indication of how independently the city’s government handles controversies that incense Beijing.

He added that there could be little reason to be optimistic under the new reality of a draconian security law introduced on Beijing’s order to target vaguely defined crimes.

Meanwhile, the city’s Covid-19 relapse is giving the pro-establishment camp an excuse to demand that the election be delayed, as its candidates and incumbents are considered to be at a disadvantage amid the city’s anti-Beijing sentiments.

At least two incumbent lawmakers, Ben Chan and Junius Ho, have called on the government to postpone the election and “focus on fighting the virus instead of creating crowds on the election day.”

Ho, a target for anti-government protesters, said the polls must be deferred until September 2021 now that the Tokyo Olympics have been postponed for a year.

HKU’s Cheung said that under the sweeping security law Beijing could step in and push the election to a later date if it believed the poll would undermine its security and interests.

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