The Legislative Council in Hong Kong. Photo:

HONG KONG – Calls to boycott upcoming Hong Kong Legislative Council elections will be illegal with offenders facing three years in jail as China stamps its authority on the territory.

New laws announced by the territory’s government on Tuesday will also apply to anyone urging voters to cast blank or invalid ballots. Legislative Council elections are set for December 19 with Beijing determined that only those it calls patriots will be allowed to stand.

The changes to the city’s electoral system follow a crackdown on the democracy movement and widespread protests.

The Hong Kong government said it will amend the Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance to forbid people from organizing or intentionally inciting voters to collectively commit acts that could undermine or manipulate elections, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said after the weekly Executive Council meeting on Tuesday.

She said, “Every voter, holding a ballot paper that they’ve been allocated, is free to choose how they want to display the paper.

“The government will not regulate voters’ choices on the election day, no matter whether they are choosing a candidate, not choosing a candidate, or doing some kind of damage to the paper which makes it an invalid vote.”

It will also be a crime to obstruct or prevent people from casting a ballot while both offenses would be punishable by up to three years in prison, according to a government paper submitted to the Legislative Council. Such conduct is among the acts that can sabotage an election, the paper said.

Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng said there would be clear definitions of “public activities” in the related law amendment.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam says voters in Hong Kong will still be free to make their choice in the polling booths. Photo: RTHK

Cheng said these activities included the delivery of emails, speeches and videos, showing messages on clothes or banners or using hand signs or poses to call for undermining elections. She said it would be illegal if a person showed such a banner at home that could be seen by the public.

Roy Tang, permanent secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, said it was legal to call on the public to support or not support a particular candidate as these activities were categorized as “election advertisements.”

However, Tang warned that it will be illegal to help promote a particular candidate without getting his or her consent. He said such efforts would be counted as election expenses of the candidate.

Paul Tse Wai-chun, a solicitor and a pro-establishment lawmaker, said blank-ballot campaigns would affect the elections.

Citing Sections 9 and 10 of the Crimes Ordinance, Tse said it was illegal to “bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the administration of justice in Hong Kong” or “promote feelings of ill-will and enmity between different classes of the population of Hong Kong.”

He said anyone who encourages others to cast blank votes with these seditious intentions would break the law.

Johannes Chan, a professor of the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong, said the Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance forbids anyone to “use force or duress, or threatens to use force or duress, against another person to induce the other person not to vote at the election or not to vote at the election for a particular candidate or particular candidates.”

However, Chan said it did not say that calling for or casting blank ballots constitutes an offense.

A woman uses her phone while waiting to vote during primary elections in Hong Kong on July 12, 2020. Photo: AFP

Chan said it was certainly feasible to create new rules to ban possible blank-ballot campaigns, but there would be gray areas in law enforcement.

Chan also said a candidate might unintentionally break the law if he called for voters not to vote for his rivals while some others might get in trouble simply by saying “no candidates are suitable.”

Democratic Party chairman Lo Kin-hei said even if many people cast blank or invalid ballots these votes would not affect the results of the elections. Lo said it was hard to understand why the government claimed that blank-ballot campaigns would manipulate elections.

On Tuesday, the government published the Improving Electoral System (Consolidated Amendments) Bill 2021 in the Gazette.

The bill is aimed at reconstituting the Election Committee and introducing an oath-taking requirement; providing for the method for selecting the Chief Executive; and updating the composition and formation of the LegCo.

It will also update the eligibility of candidates in Chief Executive elections, Election Committee subsector elections and LegCo elections. The bill will be introduced into the LegCo for first and second readings on Wednesday.

Empty seats inside the chamber of the legislative council complex in Hong Kong, Tuesday, March 30, 2020. Photo by Vernon Yuen / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP

In the bill, the government unveiled the 10 new geographical constituencies that will return 20 of the 90 new legislators to be chosen on December 19. The New Territories will be split into five new constituencies – three in Kowloon and two for Hong Kong Island. That’s up from the current five constituencies across Hong Kong.

Two lawmakers will be returned from each constituency, though the overall number of directly elected legislators will be halved. The pro-democracy camp has complained that it was almost impossible for their members to be nominated via Beijing’s strict political screening system.

The government also announced that the Election Committee elections would be held on September 19 while the Chief Executive election would be on March 27 next year.

Read: Calls rising for LegCo election boycott in HK