Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has announced the postponement of the city’s key assembly elections, citing an ongoing spike in coronavirus cases.
The election was due to take place on 6 September, and had been seen as an opportunity for pro-democracy parties to win an historic majority amid public dissatisfaction at a new security law imposed by Beijing.
Ms Lam did not specify how long the vote would be delayed, and called it the most difficult decision she had had to make since the start of the pandemic, which has seen her government invoke colonial-era emergency rule.
The decision, she said, was a «necessary» one to «protect public health, people’s lives and guarantee fairness of the election».
Once held up as an example for its success in controlling the Covid-19 outbreak that began in mainland China, Hong Kong’s daily reported cases have risen from single digits a month ago to more than 100 in each of the past 10 days.
It has introduced new measures this week including the mandatory use of face masks in public places, but its outbreak still ranks far below that of many similarly sized cities around the world — fewer than 3,300 cases and just 27 deaths.
Even before the postponement of the election was confirmed, opposition figures had cautioned that any such move would be treated with suspicion.
On Thursday, the Hong Kong government had already barred 12 influential opposition figures from running for seats on the city’s Legislative Council.
The 12 included the prominent young activist Joshua Wong, who said that he would «doubt the veracity of any coronavirus delay» to the September vote.
«Using pandemic as an excuse to postpone the election is definitely a lie because that’s the tactics for Beijing to prevent their landside loss during the voting day,» Wong wrote on Twitter.
The vote would have been the first official test of public opinion since the introduction of the new security law, which bans secession and subversion of Chinese rule and which critics say will stifle the relative autonomy Hong Kong has enjoyed from Beijing in the 23 years since it was returned from British rule.
The law, enacted after months of political protests against the encroachment of that autonomy, has seen at least one influential pro-democracy party disbanded and some activists have fled abroad.
Much of the law is considered to be tailor-made to target and criminalise those leading the protests. China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said the law would be a «sharp sword» hanging over the heads of a «tiny number of people» endangering national security.