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Activists in Hong Kong plan not to vote or to cast blank ballots in upcoming election

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Hong Kong will finally hold elections this weekend. They were put on hold a year ago because of the pandemic. And in the interim, Hong Kong's political situation has changed dramatically, as have the rules about who gets on the ballot.

NPR's China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch reports that's why some residents just plan to stay home.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Ted Hui is a former Hong Kong lawmaker and democracy activist. In the wake of the introduction of a tough national security law last year, he went into exile and now lives in Australia. It was from there that he posted an appeal on social media a few weeks ago, advocating something that he knew some people in Hong Kong were planning to do anyway.

TED HUI: But they can't say it in Hong Kong. That's why I decided that I should do the job.

RUWITCH: Hui, who has over a hundred thousand followers on Facebook, called on his compatriots to cast blank ballots in Sunday's legislative election or to not vote at all, as a form of protest. The government was enraged and in late November...

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UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: ...a court issued an arrest warrant for Hui. He says it's perfectly legal to cast a spoiled ballot or to not vote at all. But the government has made it illegal to ask people to do so.

HUI: It doesn't make any sense at all. This election is totally illegitimate.

RUWITCH: And that's because in the past year and a half, Hong Kong has undergone wrenching political changes. Critics say the authorities have used the national security law to silence the city's once-vibrant democracy movement. Scores of prominent activists and politicians are in prison or in exile like Hui. And in March this year, election rules were rewritten to tighten Beijing's grip. The popular vote was watered down. And candidates for office are now vetted to ensure that they're sufficiently patriotic.

DENNIS KWOK: So basically, they have changed the rules so that no one who doesn't have the explicit endorsement of Beijing would be allowed to run. And they have completely stifled free speech.

RUWITCH: Dennis Kwok is another former lawmaker now living in exile. He's in Boston. The government says the election overhaul is an improvement that will ensure that Hong Kong remains stable and prosperous.

Kwok isn't so sure it's being seen that way.

KWOK: I think the Hong Kong people know exactly what's going on. I think that on the day of the voting, people will go to their yum-cha. They will go to play mahjong. And would they bother to go vote? My guess is no.

RUWITCH: The authorities seem to be aware there may be a looming legitimacy problem. Police have arrested several people for allegedly doing what Hui is accused of - urging voters to skip the election or cast blank ballots. And when the Wall Street Journal suggested that that was one of the last ways for Hong Kongers to express their views, the government sent it a warning. Officials are making a final push to encourage voting. And on election day, subways and buses will be free.

Carrie Lam, the city's chief executive, is trying to get ahead of it. Here she is in an interview with a mainland Chinese newspaper.

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CARRIE LAM: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: Low turnout, she suggests, might be a sign that the government is doing so well and its credibility is so high that people don't feel the need to vote.

Steve Tsang teaches political science at the University of London.

STEVE TSANG: This Sunday, Hong Kong will have, in quotation marks, "a democratic election with Chinese characteristics."

RUWITCH: Hong Kong has never enjoyed full democracy. But this election will highlight the extent of Beijing's control and perhaps offer clues about the level of unease with the direction the city is headed in.

TSANG: It is going to be one of those landmarks that shows how Hong Kong is changing - how the paradigm of one country, two systems, Hong Kong exercising a high degree of autonomy changes meaning.

RUWITCH: NPR reached out to several people in Hong Kong to discuss the election. Most declined out of fear of retribution. One activist did agree to speak, though, as long as we didn't record or use their name. They say it's hard to predict what will happen because Hong Kong is so divided. But when Hong Kongers are motivated, they show up - like they did for a protest march in 2019 that drew an estimated 2 million people or for district council elections that year, when over 70% of the electorate cast ballots. Average voter turnout in legislative elections has been about 50%. Anything under 40, the activist reckons, might be a sign of widespread discontent.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.