Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced on Friday that the government would postpone the highly anticipated general election by a year, citing a worsening coronavirus outbreak in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
The Hong Kong government is calling on an emergency ordinance to delay elections. Lam said the government has the backing of the Chinese government to decide to hold the election on September 5, 2021.
"The announcement I have to make today is the most difficult decision I have had to make in the past seven months," Lam said at a press conference.
“We want to ensure fairness, public safety and health and ensure that the elections are held openly, fairly and impartially. This decision is therefore essential, ”she said.
The shift is a setback for the democracy-friendly opposition, which hoped to benefit from the disillusionment with the current pro-Beijing majority in order to make a profit. A group of 22 lawmakers made a statement prior to the announcement, accusing the government of using the outbreak as an excuse to delay voting.
"Acting democracy-friendly legislators, who represent 60% of public opinion, jointly reject the postponement and emphasize the responsibility of the SAR government to make every effort to organize appropriate measures against epidemics to hold the September election as planned" Hong Kong SAR said, referring to the territory's official name.
"Otherwise, it would mean uprooting the foundation for the establishment of the Special Administrative Region."
The city of 7.5 million people has seen an increase in coronavirus infections since early July. Hong Kong had 3,273 infections on Friday, more than double the number on July 1.
The government tightened restrictions on social distance, restricted public gatherings to two people, and banned eating in restaurants after 6:00 p.m.
Preparations for the election had been closely monitored after a national security law that came into force in late June stipulated that those who violated the law should be excluded from the race.
The new law was seen as Beijing's attempt to curb dissent in the city after months of protests against democracy and anti-government protests last year in Hong Kong over a controversial – but now withdrawn – extradition law that sent suspects to the mainland to test.
The months of protests plunged Hong Kong into the greatest political crisis ever, and the clashes between demonstrators and police became violent at times. Since June 2019, more than 8,000 people have been arrested in connection with the protests.
Discontent with the Hong Kong government helped the democratic-friendly bloc win a landslide in the district council elections last November, a dynamic that the opposition hoped to gain a majority in the legislature.
In Washington, White House spokesman Kayleigh McEnany said the Trump administration on Friday vigorously rejected Hong Kong's decision to postpone the election.
"We condemn the Hong Kong government's decision to postpone the legislative elections by a year and disqualify opposition candidates," said McEnany. “This action is undermining the democratic processes and freedoms that underpinned Hong Kong's prosperity, and this is only the latest in a growing list of Beijing's broken promises that promised the Hong Kong people autonomy and freedoms by 2047 in the Sino-British joint declaration. ”
China's foreign ministry insisted that the Hong Kong parliamentary elections were an "internal issue".
"It is the responsibility of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government to ensure that the 7th Legislative Council elections take place in a safe, orderly, fair and just environment," said ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Friday. "We believe that the Hong Kong SAR government will anticipate the current Hong Kong anti-epidemic situation and deal with relevant matters in accordance with the law."
On Thursday, 12 democracy-friendly candidates, including prominent democracy-friendly activist Joshua Wong, were excluded from the candidacy for failing to comply with the city's mini-constitution or for pledging allegiance to local and national governments.
"Without a doubt, this is the most scandalous choice in Hong Kong history," said Wong at a press conference on Friday. "I want to emphasize that no sensible man would think that this election ban is not politically motivated."
"Beijing has staged several acts to prevent the opposition bloc from taking a majority in Hong Kong's legislature," he said.
Germany, which currently holds the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union, said it had suspended its extradition agreement with Hong Kong to protest the decision to postpone the elections and disqualify the candidates.
"We have repeatedly clarified our expectations that China will meet its international obligations," said Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. "This includes protecting the freedoms and rights guaranteed in the Basic Law and the right to freedom and fairness elections."
The move was also criticized by the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.
“Postponing September's elections in September is a cynical step to curb a political emergency, not a public one. This will allow Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam to deny Hong Kong people the right to choose their government, "said Sophie Richardson, the group's China director.
"Without trying to look for alternative voting methods or ensuring that all voting rights are respected, Lam and her supporters in Beijing are only masking repression under the guise of public health," she said.
Regardless, the state television broadcaster CCTV announced on Friday that Hong Kong democracy-friendly activist Nathan Law, former British Consulate employee Simon Cheng and four others were being searched under the National Security Act on suspicion of inciting them to secede and to coordinate with foreign forces .
The six are currently overseas, according to CCTV. In early July, Law fled Hong Kong to the UK and Chen was granted political asylum in the UK.
The Hong Kong police declined to comment.