In a controversial move that was widely anticipated, the city's Legislative Council (Legco) election to form a new government - which was slated for next month - will be postponed for a year due to the worsening coronavirus outbreaks.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam, whose support levels have hit rock-bottom in the city, announced this yesterday, putting an end to days of speculation amid the disqualification of a dozen opposition candidates slated to run in the Legco election originally scheduled for Sept 6.
The new date for the election is Sept 5 next year.
The opposition camp had hoped to ride on the wave of public resentment against the national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing on June 30 to win big at the Legco election, much like the landslide victory in last November's district council elections.
At a briefing yesterday evening, Mrs Lam said she would invoke the colonial-era emergency law, used to impose a face mask ban last year, to facilitate the move. "In these seven months, I've had to make some hard choices. But this announcement is the hardest one yet."
For the 10th day in a row, Hong Kong added more than 100 new infections, with the 121 cases yesterday bringing the total confirmed tally to 3,272, including 27 deaths.
Of the new cases, 118 were due to local spread and the source of many cases was unknown.
For over a month, local clusters have grown quickly, and pressure is mounting on the city's healthcare systems and testing facilities.
On Monday, the government further tightened social distancing measures in an attempt to contain local transmissions.
"At this point in time, there's no way to effectively eradicate this (coronavirus) altogether," Mrs Lam said yesterday, adding that the move has the full backing of the central government.
The same day, China's Foreign Ministry said Hong Kong's elections are China's internal affairs, and due consideration would be given to the Covid-19 situation.
In these seven months, I've had to make some hard choices. But this announcement is the hardest one yet.
HONG KONG CHIEF EXECUTIVE CARRIE LAM
Earlier in the day, 22 pro-democracy lawmakers blasted the possibility of such a move, calling it a power grab that would trigger a constitutional crisis. They said the postponement is a conspiracy by the government and its supporters as the government may not do well at the polls.
The election was to be the former British colony's first democratic exercise since Beijing imposed the security law - which carries punishment of life imprisonment - against secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Beijing and the Hong Kong government have reassured people that the law affects only an extremely small number of people and will not undermine the city's freedoms guaranteed under the "one country, two systems" principle that has been in place since 1997. They argued that the law is vital to restore order and prosperity after over half a year of often violent anti-government protests last year.
But the opposition camp and activists believe the law not only spells the end of the city's high degree of autonomy, but also paves the way for crackdown on dissent.
And the clearest example, they say, is Thursday's disqualification from the Legco election of 12 opposition candidates, including activist Joshua Wong and the Civic Party's Mr Dennis Kwok, Mr Kwok Ka Ki and Mr Alvin Yeung, many of whom oppose the security law.
Mr Wong yesterday said the reasons for his disqualification were ridiculous and called the move a "witch-hunt", accusing election officials of twisting his views so that they can prosecute him under the security law.
When asked, Associate Professor Sing Ming of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology said the candidates' disqualification comes as the level of support for Beijing and the Hong Kong government is at a record low, a reflection of people's trust in the "one country, two systems" principle.
"Together with the widespread suspicion and disapproval of the national security law, it is quite natural to conclude that Beijing would like to use the disqualification to preclude the catastrophic result for the pro-Beijing camp," he said.
The scope of the disqualification has been wider than anticipated by many observers, he noted, adding that moderates have also been booted out.
In the light of this, Prof Sing said it would be extremely controversial to postpone the election for so long as it would "create all kinds of legitimacy problems".
But Mr Lau Siu Kai, vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said the election "is no longer just Hong Kong's internal affairs", but also a national affair that involves national security and questions as to whether external forces have united with the opposition camp to seize power.
"So that prompts Beijing into doing something to prevent the hostile forces from taking over the Legco and to make sure that the national security is safeguarded," he said.