Pompeo expresses concern as China warns 600,000 Hong Kong voters could have broken law

China could invoke the national security law against pro-democracy primary voters

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo | Reuters File photo of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo | Reuters

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has expressed concern after China warned of legal action against those who participated in a set of “illegal” primaries held over the weekend to help the city’s pro-democracy movement shortlist candidates for the upcoming Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) elections.

“I warmly congratulate Hong Kong’s pan-democrats for their successful primary election. More than 600,000 Hong Kongers cast ballots in the first territory-wide, pan-democratic primary election. Their enthusiasm clearly demonstrates their desire to make their voices heard in the face of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to suffocate the territory’s freedoms,” Pompeo said in a statement.

“We note with grave concern Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s threat that this primary may have violated Beijing’s new ‘national security’ law for the territory, once again demonstrating the Chinese Communist Party’s fear of democracy and its own people’s free thinking. We will be watching developments closely, especially as the September 6 Legislative Council elections draw closer,” the statement said.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam had on Monday warned that the recent “two-days of activities” where over 600,000 Hong Kongers gathered to vote in a primary election held by the city’s pro-democracy camp, could have been illegal.

“If this so-called primary election's purpose is to achieve the ultimate goal of delivering what they called '35-plus' with the objective of objecting or resisting every policy initiative of the HKSAR government, it may fall into the category of subverting the state power—one of the four types of offences under the national security law," Lam said on Monday.

Lam’s warning was regarding the goal of the pro-democracy movement to win a 35-seat majority in the upcoming Hong Kong Legislative Council elections in September, which would enable them to block measures such as the budget.

“Experts” cited by China’s state-run news outlet Global Times warned that if “foreign interference” was was spotted or if a “plan to subvert the state power” was confirmed, it would make this the first major case invokable under the national security law in Hong Kong for "damaging" China’s national security. The law, which came into force on July 1, has already prompted pro-democracy activist Nathan Law to flee to London fearing "unknown dangers" due to its broad provisions.

Lam announced an investigation would take place in to the primary, following complaints to the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau that the primaries “may have allegedly interfered with and manipulated” the elections. The Bureau added that some complaints claimed the ban on large gatherings was subverted—Hong Kong remains under COVID-19 -related restrictions as the city battles a fresh wave of infections.

Stand With Hong Kong, a popular pro-democracy Facebook page, put up a post saying that the purpose of primary elections “is to narrow down candidates for the LegCo election. The accusations of breaking the national security law seem...conveniently illogical.”

The primary polls are not a part of the electoral process for Hong Kong’s legislative council elections scheduled in September, but they were informally held nonetheless to help shortlist pro-democracy candidates to run and hopefully reduce the number of perceived “pro-Beijing” candidates in the council. The vote saw saw an extraordinary turnout of over 600,000 people over two days of voting, organisers claimed.

In a statement, the spokesperson of the Central People’s Government’s Liaison Office in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region said it condemned opposition political groups for ignoring laws and the governments’ warnings to hold “illegal” primary elections, saying it supported an in-depth investigation into the same.

"With the support of external forces, opposition groups and leaders have deliberately devised plans to hold this so-called 'primary election,' which is a serious provocation to the current electoral system and caused serious damage to the fairness and justice of the Legislative Council elections," the Liaison Office said.

Benny Tai, a professor of law and one of the primary’s organisers, said that according to Hong Kong law, while the primaries were not illegal, they did not have a legal effect. Since it had not been prohibited, the Hong Kong people were allowed to carry them out. “For people who do not recognize democracy or disagree with democratic values, it is hard to understand the meaning of primaries,” he wrote on Facebook.

Tai was mentioned by the HKSAR statement, which remarked, "Who instructed [Tai] to openly manipulate the election in so high-profile a manner? Who gave him such confidence?" the statement added, noting that he had been sentenced to 16 months in jail last year for his role in the 2014 'Occupy Central' movement.