Why Authoritarian Regimes Bother With Elections
Beijing rewrote the rules of Hong Kong’s recent elections, and the result among voters was apathy.
In November 2019, Nixie Lam suffered the same fate as nearly all of her pro-Beijing compatriots running in Hong Kong’s local elections. The two-term district councillor was roundly defeated by a prodemocracy candidate whose campaign had been buoyed by months of sustained protests. A pro-Beijing “silent majority,” much talked about by supporters and pundits, proved to be nothing more than a fallacy, and with record turnout, prodemocracy candidates parlayed the demonstrations into historic gains, capturing majorities in 17 of Hong Kong’s 18 district councils.
Although district councils have limited power, they are the only directly contested elections in the city and are therefore notable bellwethers for what Hong Kongers actually think. The results humiliated the Hong Kong government, Beijing, and its loyalists in the city. Still, Lam tried to downplay the trouncing she and her party members took. “You couldn’t win forever,” she told me recently.
A couple of years after her defeat, Lam was tapped to run in Sunday’s legislative-council elections, the city’s mini-Parliament, and she accepted. When I met with her last week, she seemed confident in her chances at a political comeback on a bigger stage—and with good reason. After 2019’s near wipeout, the central government on the mainland didn’t just change the rules of Hong Kong’s political game. Like a petulant child tired of losing, Beijing tossed the entire thing into the garbage bin.
With reengineered election rules, Hong Kong’s already limited democratic freedoms have been almost entirely stripped away. The number of overall seats in the city’s legislature was expanded to 90, but the number of directly elected seats was slashed to just 20. (Previously, half of the 70 seats were directly elected.) Other representatives are elected by functional constituencies, which are small, mostly commercial special-interest groups. Under a new policy of “patriots administering Hong Kong,” candidates were vetted by a panel headed by senior government officials and advised by the police. Not that there would have been many candidates to contest the positions even if the rules hadn’t changed; nearly every notable prodemocracy figure has been jailed, fled abroad, or retreated from public life after the passage of a draconian national-security law last year, another facet of a sweeping and unrelenting crackdown on Hong Kong’s liberties.
What is left is “hegemonic authoritarianism,” Lee Morgenbesser, a senior politics lecturer at Griffith University, in Australia, told me. It’s a system, he said, that exists when “de facto opposition parties are banned, basic civil liberties and political rights are overtly violated, the rule of law is arbitrarily breached, and the government has monopolized access to media.” Crucially, this type of governance structure allows places like Hong Kong and other regimes, such as those in Laos and Vietnam, to keep up the veneer of democratic competition but with the preferred results all but guaranteed. “Ultimately, elections may be allowed to exist,” Morgenbesser told me, “but they cease to be an avenue for actual opposition parties to gain power.”
This boded well for Lam and her fellow patriots. She ran to represent the newly formed “election-committee constituency,” a powerful body made up of 1,448 pro-Beijing loyalists who selected 40 seats of the legislature, the largest bloc. She won a seat with only 1,181 votes. None of the city’s major prodemocracy parties fielded any candidates. A handful of hopefuls attempted to pitch themselves as third-way moderates, and only one was elected. Turnout was historically low.
Government officials touted this as part of an “improved” election system and asked residents to believe them when they insisted it was actually more representative than before. Rather than campaign among the general public, Lam shuttled between meetings with industry groups and tycoons and held Zoom calls with voters in mainland China. Standing out in a field of candidates whose beliefs are largely the same can be a challenge, so Lam wore a dusty-pink pantsuit for the duration of her weeks-long campaign. Cosplaying as a democratic politician on the campaign trail is apparently challenging. “This is really tiring, I tell you,” she mentioned to me on multiple occasions.
Hong Kong’s vote came as China was again attempting to redefine the idea of democracy globally. Beijing reacted furiously to the Summit for Democracy convened by President Joe Biden earlier this month. The central government published its own white paper, running more than 50 pages, that trumpeted the benefits of its version of democracy. A follow-up document, and a deluge of anti-U.S. propaganda, pointed out the flaws and decline of the American system.
“Democracy has been a dominant global norm, and it is hard for Beijing to openly challenge such a norm,” Xiaoyu Pu, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada at Reno and the author of the book Rebranding China, told me. “Instead of delegitimizing democracy itself, Beijing has always emphasized democracy could take different forms and their governance model could be one of the legitimate models.”
The central government’s efforts to change Hong Kong’s model have accelerated quickly since 2019, but have been building for years as Beijing, rather than address the grievances of the population, became more heavy-handed in its tactics to quash dissent. Ka-Ming Chan, a doctoral student at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich who studies Hong Kong’s electoral systems, wrote in a recently published paper that the disqualification of candidates in the 2016 election was a “prologue to the authoritarian turn.” With the imposition of the national-security law, “candidate-filtering is much more institutionalized,” he told me. “When candidates pass through all these filters, it certainly implies that they hardly pose a threat to Beijing, for they have already obtained the blessing of the patriots’ sector.”
There was never any doubt that Lam’s patriotic credentials would pass muster. She spent the two years since her 2019 loss developing a combative, hypernationalist persona with the help of her party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong. Citing her use of social media to drive her campaign and shape her personal brand, she told me she was similar to Barack Obama. Now she uses her social accounts to display the type of performative enthusiasm that has become more common since the passing of the national-security law. The jingoistic rhetoric from her and other younger members of the pro-Beijing parties is reminiscent of the incendiary comments hurled online by Beijing’s abrasive diplomats, who have earned themselves the “wolf warrior” moniker.
On Twitter, Lam falsely accused Hong Kongers who were pepper-sprayed and beaten by police during the protests of being actors. In online videos, she has raged against fictitious foreign meddling in the protests, a popular conspiracy theory in Beijing. She is a go-to talking head for Chinese state media looking for an officially sanctioned sound bite on the grievance of the day. And she maintains that there was nothing wrong with the anti-extradition bill that sparked the 2019 protests.
Lam was perturbed when I pointed out that the candidates, although coming from different backgrounds, were largely interchangeable in regards to their political beliefs. She insisted that they had many differences, but unlike prodemocracy lawmakers, they didn’t hate China and their Chinese identity or want to split Hong Kong from China. “One thing that is the same is that we are Chinese,” Lam told me, referring to the crop of candidates. “I think if you don’t believe in that, there is some problem with your brain. If you do not admit that, you are Hong Kong Chinese. If you claim Hong Kong is an independent country, there is something wrong with your knowledge … for years a lot of opposition-party people tried to push forward that idea.”
The election overhaul turned the normally loud and colorful campaign period into a more staid affair. Banners strung up around the city looked largely the same and carried slogans utterly devoid of creativity. Outside subway stations and near markets, geriatic volunteers in colorful windbreakers manned campaign booths and half-heartedly tried to thrust flyers into the hands of pedestrians, and recorded messages from their preferred candidates crackled over speakers in an endless loop. Meanwhile, inside the city’s courtrooms, charges against prodemocracy figures continued to pile up.
Among the candidates, talk of democracy and democratic reforms was largely absent. Instead, hopefuls spoke mostly about economic issues. Wage inequality and extreme concentration of wealth have only worsened since Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997. Of particular focus was the city’s housing crisis, an issue that has yet to be adequately addressed by Hong Kong’s four pro-Beijing chief executives or in the legislature, where pro-Beijing lawmakers have always been in the majority.
The astronomical housing prices have become a sort of white whale for pro-Beijing figures, who ignored the actual five demands of protesters in favor of the belief that cheap apartments will quickly fix what ails the city. The truth is that they “don’t want to tackle other more important issues … like politics, like democracy,” Yip Ngai-ming, a professor at City University of Hong Kong who studies the city’s housing issues, told me. Blaming housing for the city’s problems, he said, “is not just an oversimplification; it is a deliberate misplacement of attention.”
This purposeful shift in focus to housing and livelihood issues is an attempt, Morgenbesser told me, to turn elections into “minor disagreements over policy issues, rather than major disagreements over the political direction of the country.” He described it as an old trick and one hardly unique to Hong Kong, deployed in places like Cambodia, Zimbabwe, and Azerbaijan. “By making an election an apolitical event, authoritarian regimes reduce the emotional and psychological importance citizens attach” to elections, he said. In so doing, the government creates stability, which “really means longevity for those already in power.”
Holding a stunt election is not without its difficulties, namely getting people excited about a contest where the outcome appears largely pre-decided. Tam Yiu-chung, the only Hong Kong representative in China’s top lawmaking body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, told me during the run-up to the vote that he was not concerned with turnout, estimating it would be about 40 percent, well below previous years. In 2016’s contest, 2.2 million Hong Kongers cast ballots for the directly elected seats, a turnout of just over 58 percent. The turnout for the 2019 district-council elections was even higher, at more than 71 percent.
Carrie Lam, the city’s historically unpopular chief executive who has never won a direct election, added her own spin. Low turnout, she said prior to the vote, would actually be a sign that people are happy with the government’s performance. “There is a saying that when the government is doing well and its credibility is high, the voter turnout will decrease because the people do not have a strong demand to choose different lawmakers to supervise the government,” she told the Chinese-state-backed Global Times newspaper. “Therefore, I think the turnout rate does not mean anything.”
Despite Lam’s proclaimed indifference to voter enthusiasm, the government made city transport free on election day in an effort to encourage people to go to the polls. Many appeared to use the free rides to go to the mall or the beach instead. At polling stations in the Wan Chai and Sai Ying Pun neighborhoods, turnout was sparse, consisting mainly of elderly voters, and the atmosphere on the street was marked by apathy and alienation. Few people seemed interested in the final push by campaign volunteers who tried to hand out their last promotional materials.
It was a stark contrast to the scenes of 2019, when lines of voters snaked down the sidewalks and people waited in line for hours to cast their ballots. By late afternoon, it was becoming clear that turnout was lagging well behind that of previous contests. In the end, turnout was just 30.2 percent, a record low since the city returned to Chinese rule and more than 10 percent lower than the previous record. Candidates were making excuses for the dismal turnout even before the polls closed, blaming the government for poor messaging and the free transport for drawing people away from the polls. Left unsaid were the real reasons for Hong Kongers’ unhappiness and disengagement: the complete absence of any meaningful political choice and the destruction of yet another avenue through which they can express their dissatisfaction with the government and the direction of the city under the relentless crush of Beijing.