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Financial Times / Biz - Money

Hong Kong votes in ‘de facto referendum’ on Beijing intervention

First the government disqualified her friend Nathan Law, who was elected as Hong Kong’s youngest legislative councillor in 2016, for failing to swear sincere allegiance to Beijing. Then they blocked her from standing to replace him in Sunday’s by-election because she called for Hong Kongers to have the right to decide their own future.

Although her political career is officially over at the age of 21, the effervescent democracy activist Agnes Chow vows to keep fighting.

“They want to stop the whole young generation that voices out opinion against the Hong Kong and Beijing government,” says Ms Chow, as she shows off leaflets, posters and hoodies that her campaign team printed before her candidacy was rejected in January.

More than 2m people — over half the Hong Kong electorate — will vote on Sunday in a by-election for four Legislative Council seats that Ms Chow’s last-minute replacement, fellow activist Au Nok-hin, calls a “de facto referendum . . . between rule of law and rule by law”.

Beijing has increased its encroachments on semi-autonomous Hong Kong in recent years, amid a wider intensification of control by Chinese President Xi Jinping. From kidnapping critical booksellers to disqualifying disloyal politicians from office, these moves have undermined faith in the rule of law, the backbone of Hong Kong’s economic success over the past two decades.

Western governments have condemned the deepening erosion of Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms, with the European Union warning that the decision to bar Ms Chow “risks diminishing Hong Kong’s international reputation as a free and open society”.

Half of the seats in the city’s 70-member Legislative Council are democratically elected. But Beijing and the government it appointed in Hong Kong have moved to oust or block more than a dozen legislators and candidates since 2016, in an attempt to silence the increasingly vocal opposition movement and growing calls for independence or self-determination.

Mr Au says that the Communist party’s decision to further entrench Mr Xi’s power by ending presidential term limits kills off hope for democratic progress in the short term — and leaves activists fighting a rearguard action to protect what they have left.

“But I still hope that there is also a little area for Hong Kong to protect our core values,” says the little-known activist, who has nothing like Ms Chow’s public recognition.

Ma Ngok, a professor of politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, calls the by-election “unconstitutional” and “unfair” because candidates like Ms Chow have been barred from standing for their political beliefs.

If the pro-democracy camp fail to re-take the four seats up for grabs, or the turnout is low, it will further weaken the movement and signal to Beijing that Hong Kongers are becoming resigned to defeat in the fight against authoritarian rule.

“We’ve lost every battle in the last few years, so it’s getting harder to motivate people to resist,” says one pro-democracy legislator, who does not want to be named. “We might not like the Communist party but they are very good at what they do: crushing opponents”.

After a lacklustre campaign that has not generated many local headlines, Thomas Sin is one of many disaffected voters. Mr Sin, who runs a clothing stall, says voting is “useless” because the government is “disappointing and malfunctioning”, while young activists like Ms Chow are “messing up Hong Kong” with their street protests.

Judy Chan, who is standing against Mr Au on a pro-Beijing ticket, says in campaign leaflets that she will “bring reason back to politics”. But she declined multiple requests for an interview.

Her party boss Regina Ip, a member of Hong Kong’s ruling executive council, says that Hong Kongers “need to come to terms with the reality” that Beijing demands “loyalty and allegiance” as the price for giving them “the highest level of autonomy”.

Ms Ip supports the disqualification of candidates who challenge Beijing’s right to rule and the continuing prosecutions of democracy activists for public order offences, urging young people not to be “misled by half-truths”.

“As a special administrative region of China, we cannot expect to have full democracy,” she says.

With Mr Xi tightening his control over China and ramping up the Communist party’s influence operations overseas, Ms Chow calls on other countries to do more to support the fight for democracy in Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong is the front line in the battle against this authoritarian regime,” she says. “When the rest of the world is co-operating with China, they shouldn’t only care about economic issues but also human rights.”