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Tuesday, August 04, 2020, 10:13
Extraordinary challenges call for extraordinary ways
By Richard Cullen
Tuesday, August 04, 2020, 10:13 By Richard Cullen

As the COVID-19 pandemic has grown grimly and rapidly around the world many jurisdictions have faced special challenges. The potential risk of amplifying this pandemic increases greatly with large social gatherings. Thus, a recurring difficult question across many jurisdictions has been whether to hold scheduled elections. 

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems lists over 90 different elections around the world disrupted to varying degrees by the COVID pandemic. Around 20 percent have been postponed indefinitely, others rescheduled to dates in 2020 and some others to dates in 2021. Local elections in England, for example, have been moved to May 2021 from May this year.

Some jurisdictions, including Singapore, South Korea and Japan, have, meanwhile, held elections. Careful thinking went into each of these decisions. 

There are no simple or easy answers. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. When it comes to the matter of holding elections during the COVID pandemic, each jurisdiction needs to make its own decision, based on its own unique conditions.

Hong Kong has recently announced that the 2020 Legislative Council election will be postponed for a year until Sept 5, 2021. Moreover, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government has stated that it would seek the assistance of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, using its conclusive interpretation powers under the Basic Law, to help resolve the range of legal issues arising from this exceptional decision. These issues include: how the existing LegCo can properly be empowered to continue for an extended period of a year and what will be the duration of the LegCo set to be elected in 2021.

The government has faced multiple, exceptional challenges as it has worked to protect our community’s well-being and to restore political order. Moreover, it knew it had to expect the widest condemnation from the liberal Western media and from the US and certain governments most in thrall to Washington, once it moved to postpone

It is useful to consider the extraordinary circumstances in the HKSAR that have created the argued need for this remarkable response.

A few words, first, about the crucial geopolitical context. Consider the long-established “hardball” aspect, which stands behind the “new Cold War” directed against China announced by the US in October 2018. As winner of Britain’s Journalist of the Year award, John Pilger, explained, China is surrounded by some 400 US military bases starting from the north of Australia, ranging up through various US Pacific territories into Japan and South Korea, then into Eurasia, including Afghanistan, down to the huge Indian Ocean facility at Diego Garcia — and back to Australia. This new Cold War is, thus far, a non-shooting war and let us pray that it stays that way. But it has been constantly amplified through US commercial and technological anti-China targeting, for example, over the last two years. As the US elections loom in November, we are approaching fever pitch intensity.

Next, there has been the profound assault on the normal constitutional order in the HKSAR that unfolded in 2019. We saw Hong Kong lurch toward becoming a continuously fevered, political dystopia for months on end. What evolved was a desperately disproportionate and intensely destructive response to concerns with the extradition bill, however strongly felt these concerns may have been. 

LegCo, meanwhile, firmly confirmed itself to be the most acutely dysfunctional of all of Hong Kong’s constitutional pillars. Severe opposition, physical intervention in its normal functions was evident by May last year. Next there was a dangerous, riot-based, successful protest to stop LegCo convening at all on June 12. Later came the destruction of the LegCo building on July 1, closing it down for three months, and after this, opposition procedural manipulation that left LegCo conspicuously debilitated for months on end after October.  

The ferocious assault on Hong Kong’s constitutional order in 2019 within the context of the escalating new Cold War initiatives made the move by Beijing to apply a new National Security Law in Hong Kong all but inevitable.

 Next, and most importantly of all in this context, we have had to deal with the COVID pandemic. Hong Kong was conspicuously successful in keeping the spread of COVID-19 under control for several months. Recently, however, a seriously worrying third wave of infections has begun. This is proving far more difficult to contain than the earlier waves. Most concerning has been the spread of COVID-19 into highly vulnerable long-term care facilities. 

Note, also that the HKSAR has no systems in place to allow for very large-scale postal voting or absentee voting. In the midst of the new COVID outbreak this most disadvantages older registered voters and those who spend extended periods living across the border. 

Let’s be clear about one thing, when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo begins inflating his neck and lecturing Hong Kong on how it must proceed with the originally scheduled LegCo election, he has one priority in mind: Can this help Donald Trump make up ground and win a second presidential term? Whatever his protests to the contrary, Pompeo has scant real interest in the democratic or general welfare of Hong Kong residents. Indeed, if a major outbreak of COVID infections were to be triggered by proceeding with this scheduled election this would feed seamlessly into the White House’s Sinophobic narrative: Beijing fails to control the “Chinese Flu” in Hong Kong, etc.

We live in extraordinary times. The decision to postpone the LegCo election is radical. Ideally, it might have been made with LegCo agreement. But the opposition’s self-destructive maneuvers made this inconceivable.

The government has faced multiple, exceptional challenges as it has worked to protect our community’s well-being and to restore political order. Moreover, it knew it had to expect the widest condemnation from the liberal Western media and from the US and certain governments most in thrall to Washington, once it moved to postpone.

By any measure, this has, thus, been a very hard decision to take. Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, emeritus director of the World Health Organization, recently confirmed just how timely this postponement is, however. We are distinctly fortunate that the government has acted with singular resolution to protect the interests of Hong Kong generally and to protect public health in the HKSAR at a most difficult time and at a time of unprecedented risk.

The author is a visiting law professor in the Faculty of Law, the University of Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.


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