Candidates of delayed Legislative Council elections will not be refunded campaign expenses if they are being investigated for national security law breaches under revised Hong Kong government guidelines that critics condemn as a U-turn.
The government announced late last July in the middle of the nomination period it would postpone the elections scheduled for last September because of health risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
It said at the time candidates whose nominations were not invalidated by returning officers should be entitled to “receive a payment from the government in an amount equal to the declared election expenses”.
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But the pro-Beijing camp criticised the reimbursements as “channelling money to fund the anti-China elements”.
Activist Henry Wong Pak-yu, a Yuen Long district councillor, declared he spent more than HK$4.8 million (US$617,800) during his campaign for a Legco seat in the district council (second) functional constituency. One of his pro-establishment rivals in the contest, Starry Lee Wai-king, reported an expense of about HK$2.65 million.
Wong was among the 55 activists from the opposition camp who were arrested for allegedly breaching the national security law in connection with their involvement in the pan-democrats’ so-called primary election last July. Wong should have been eligible for a refund under the original guidelines.
The revised guidelines on election claims state that “for the avoidance of doubt, if investigation or prosecution has been commenced against a candidate … for suspected breach of an offence contrary to the [national security law], the chief electoral officer must not release any payment to the candidate or list of candidates concerned until the final determination, abandonment or termination of the relevant investigation or judicial proceedings”.
The guidelines also state: “If the candidate is subsequently found guilty by the court … on the ground of having been involved in an illegal election-related activity, the candidate will not be eligible for payment from the government in full.”
And even after payment has been made, the government can also ask candidates to pay back the money if the individual is later found to be “not entitled”.
“Any amount that is not repaid may be recovered as a civil debt due to the government,” the guidelines said.
Critics labelled the government’s revision unfair.
“The original guidelines did not mention the national security law but the government suddenly makes the change,” said Civil Rights Observer founder Andrew Shum Wai-nan. “One can’t help but think the move is to target pan-democrats. Even if a candidate is under investigation, he or she cannot get the payment.
“That is a very unfair treatment. And what is more, the government can ask the candidate to pay back the money even if he or she is involved in a national security case in the future.”
Political scientist Chan Wai-keung, of Polytechnic University, said the government might have taken the step under pressure by the pro-Beijing camp.
“The latest move is also to ensure that government money would not be channelled to those anti-China elements and also to cut a source of their funding,” Chan said.
The Registration and Electoral Office confirmed that the revised guidelines were sent to the candidates on Tuesday. It was still processing their claims and no payments had been made yet, the office said.
During the nomination period last summer, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang Kwok-wai, who is in charge of the elections, said campaign expenses incurred would be reimbursed as long as the candidates’ nominations had been confirmed by the returning officers.
The government recently announced the election would be held on December 19.
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