HONG KONG -- "Inciting" the public to cast blank ballots is set to become a criminal offense in Hong Kong, amid growing calls for a boycott of upcoming legislative elections as a way of protesting Beijing's tightening control over the city.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday revealed plans to amend an ordinance to ban acts that "manipulate or undermine elections," including openly encouraging voters not to vote or to cast invalid ballots, as well as "willfully obstructing and preventing" others from voting.
This follows moves by China's National People's Congress to require Hong Kong legislative candidates to pass through multiple levels of official screening before facing the voters, a change that is expected to largely silence opposition voices within the body in the name of establishing "rule by patriots."
Under Lam's proposal, those breaching the ordinance would face a maximum penalty of three years in prison. The change is expected to take effect in time for Legislative Council polls which Lam said will be held Dec. 19.
"We respect each voter's right to choose ... but if we are talking about organizing and inciting voters to take collective action, then that could be considered as damaging or manipulating an election," Lam said, adding that casting a blank vote by one's own volition would not constitute a crime.
The political overhaul passed by the NPC and its standing committee will also see the number of publicly elected seats in Hong Kong's legislature slashed.
Only 20 out of 90 seats, or 22.2% of the total, will be elected by the public under the new framework. That compares with 40 out of 70 seats, or 57.1% of the body, in the last legislative election in 2016. The next session will feature the lowest proportion of directly elected legislators since the colonial era.
Candidates will also be required to pass screening by two national security bodies and a Beijing-controlled committee to ensure all are sufficiently patriotic. No appeals or judicial challenges will be allowed.
Lam said on Tuesday that the Candidate Eligibility Review Committee will consist of top government officials and representatives from the public to "enhance its credibility," without elaborating on who those members might be.
The new election law has drawn international condemnation. Washington has sanctioned 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials whom it regards as responsible for the decision.