HONG KONG • US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has condemned Hong Kong's decision to delay its Legislative Council election by a year and urged the city's government to reconsider.
"There is no valid reason for such a lengthy delay," Mr Pompeo said in a statement on Saturday.
"This regrettable action confirms that Beijing has no intention of upholding the commitments it made to the Hong Kong people and the United Kingdom under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a UN-registered treaty, and the Basic Law."
Mr Pompeo said the Hong Kong authorities should hold the election as close as possible to Sept 6, the original date set.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the postponement last Friday, citing a recent surge in Covid-19 cases. The Asian financial hub saw 121 coronavirus infections that day, after recording its highest tally yet on Thursday. The city is grappling with a new wave of cases that has seen tighter restrictions - including a two-person limit on public gatherings - that could further affect traditional campaigning.
"Delaying the Legislative Council election held every four years is a very difficult decision," Mrs Lam said. "But in order to curb the pandemic, ensure public safety and citizens' health, and meanwhile ensure the election is held under an open and fair environment, this decision is necessary."
Mrs Lam said she was invoking an emergency powers ordinance to delay the vote and that the government's decision to do so had the support of China's central government.
She said deploying as many as 34,000 election day volunteers across over 600 polling stations to assist millions of voters was too dangerous under the circumstances.
The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, which reports to China's State Council, said the decision to delay the election "reflects a highly responsible attitude towards the life and health of Hong Kong citizens. It is very necessary, reasonable and legal".
The postponement of the vote to Sept 5, 2021 comes after Hong Kong's government drew new red lines on how much dissent it would tolerate, and stands to intensify global concerns about the preservation of basic freedoms.
US President Donald Trump has started to roll back the city's so-called special trading status amid wider tensions with China.
White House spokesman Kayleigh McEnany last Friday said the election delay "undermines the democratic processes and freedoms that have underpinned Hong Kong's prosperity".
Pro-democracy advocates had hoped to ride the momentum of a landslide victory in last November's District Council vote to an unprecedented majority in the legislature. They are already reeling from the Beijing-imposed national security law in June, which has been widely criticised and led to punitive measures by the US administration.
Hong Kong's government last week banned opposition candidates and arrested activists under the sweeping security law for comments made online. That led to international condemnation from the US, Australia and Britain, while local democracy activists and human rights groups said the city's government was suppressing free speech among opposition groups.
Opposition lawmaker Fernando Cheung said the decision was unconstitutional. "The pandemic was used purely as an excuse. The real reason for the delay is that the CCP is afraid it will lose by a landslide, much like what happened in the district election in November last year," he said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
About 55 per cent of people responding to a recent survey believed the Legislative Council election should go ahead as planned on Sept 6, despite the pandemic, according to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme, which polled 8,805 respondents between July 27 and 30. Some 21 per cent thought the election should be postponed by no more than six months.
The curbs on Hong Kong pro-democracy activists and opposition politicians have increased dramatically since Beijing drafted and imposed the national security law, bypassing the city's legislature. The new legislation bars subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, with punishments as harsh as life in prison.
Mrs Lam's administration and the central government in Beijing have defended the law as a way to restore stability and prosperity to Hong Kong after sometimes-violent protests last year helped push the city into a recession - only to be battered again by the pandemic. But lawyers and activists have said the law's vaguely worded clauses could be used to silence dissidents and political opponents.