HONG KONG -- Citing risks from the city's rapidly spreading COVID-19 outbreak, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced Friday that the city's legislative election would be postponed a year.
"Pressing on with polls would pose a great risk to some 4 million registered voters, of whom many are elderly citizens over 70 years old," Lam said. Noting expectations of high voter turnout, she invoked emergency powers to push the election back, calling it "a very difficult decision."
Lam had faced calls for a postponement in recent weeks from pro-government parties, who were expected to fare badly in the polls scheduled for Sept. 6 and who count elderly voters and Hong Kongers living across the mainland border, largely closed due to COVID-19, as important support groups. Lam, however, insisted her decision was about health, rather than politics.
Sophie Richardson, China director for campaign group Human Rights Watch, tweeted her disagreement: "Postponing the September elections for a year is a cynical move to contain a political emergency, not a public health one."
"This simply allows Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to deny Hong Kong people their right to choose their government," she said, adding it was a "political choice" by Lam not to move to postal or electronic voting. "I've observed elections in a dozen countries, none more high-tech, adaptable, capable than Hong Kong."
A2 Global Risk, which advises companies on business risks, said in a client note, "International reaction to the suspension of elections is also certain to add to growing divisions between China and many Western and other democracies."
Hong Kong is facing its worst coronavirus outbreak yet, counting 121 new infections on Friday. Including a fatality Friday, the city's death toll from the pandemic has multiplied to 27 from seven over the past three weeks.
Lam said she will ask the National People's Congress Standing Committee, which serves as China's legislative body for most of the year, to consider issuing a ruling extending the term of current Hong Kong legislators by a year. The committee announced on Thursday that it would next convene Aug. 8-11 rather toward the end of the month as usual.
Shortly after Lam's announcement, Chinese government agencies overseeing Hong Kong affairs voiced their support for the delay.
"The decision shows that the Hong Kong government is committed to safeguarding public health and respecting public opinion," said the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, denying postponement would "curtail democratic rights and freedoms."
Yet according to a public survey published earlier in the day by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, around 55% of residents want the election held as originally scheduled while 36% favor delay. About 9,000 residents were polled July 23-30.
Eric Lai, a Hong Kong politics scholar and member of an independent academic group formed to monitor local elections said, "Such a delay will harm the fairness of the election severely."
Hours ahead of Lam's announcement, 22 opposition lawmakers issued a statement urging her not to delay the Legislative Council election.
"After a year of democratic movement, it is urgent for Legco to undergo a baptism of public opinion, which is the root of the city's governance," the group said. The statement noted that more than 60 governments around the world -- such examples have included Singapore, South Korea and Mongolia -- had already successfully held elections during the pandemic.
Lam though said that nearly as many governments have delayed elections, including the U.K. and some U.S. states. Lam's announcement came an hour after the end of a two-week filing period for election candidates.
On Thursday, four opposition legislators and eight allied candidates, including activist Joshua Wong, received notice of their disqualification from the polls.
Election officials cited the candidates' opposition to the national security law Beijing imposed on the city on June 30 and other political stances as showing their inability to uphold the city's constitutional order.
Shortly before she began her news conference Friday, the government announced that Lam, as chair of Hong Kong's Committee on National Security had been meeting with top officials of Beijing's Office for Safeguarding National Security, set up earlier in the month in the city.
Speaking alongside Lam at the news conference, Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng said that disqualified candidates could register to run again for the September 2021 polls.
Many of the disqualified hopefuls competed in an opposition primary held July 11-12. More than 600,000 voters participated despite warnings from officials that the event might violate the national security law or spread the coronavirus. No confirmed cases have been traced to the event yet.
Following five months of widespread anti-government protests, opposition candidates swept away with control of 17 out of 18 neighborhood councils in polls held last November, feeding hopes the parties could win their first legislative majority this year.
Speaking to reporters Friday morning, Wong vowed, "Our resistance will continue on... They can't kill us all."
Additional reporting by Zach Coleman in Hong Kong.