HONG KONG • Officials in Hong Kong are working to boost turnout in today’s legislative election, according to diplomats and people familiar with the effort.

As part of those actions, two Chinese state-owned banks – Bank of China (Hong Kong) and China Construction Bank International – have appealed to their employees to vote, according to two people familiar with the matter and an e-mail seen by Reuters.

“Please cast your sacred ballots for Hong Kong, and for yourself,” the e-mail read.

After a major rewriting of electoral law in March, with the government saying that only “patriots” may administer the city, Hong Kong is holding its first Legislative Council (LegCo) election – with the city’s main democratic parties not fielding candidates.

Hong Kong’s leaders and China’s leadership in Beijing, which pledged to maintain the financial hub’s autonomy when Britain returned control of its colony to China in 1997, are keen to ensure that the vote does not appear to lack popular support, and fear a low turnout, two diplomats told Reuters.

Senior officials have made high-profile appeals to voters, and public transport operators said they would provide free rides on election day.

The authorities also have issued warnings, including to international media, that inciting a person not to vote or to cast an invalid vote is illegal.

Some democracy activists who fled Hong Kong to avoid arrest have called on voters to ignore the election to avoid giving the vote legitimacy.

The office of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Beijing’s liaison office in the city did not respond to requests for comment on efforts to mobilise voter turnout.

In February, police charged 47 Hong Kong democracy campaigners with conspiracy to commit subversion for their role in an unofficial primary election after Beijing imposed a national security law on the city last year.

Soon after the arrests, China’s Parliament announced sweeping changes to the electoral landscape, reducing the number of directly elected seats from half to around a quarter, while an electoral committee stacked with pro-Beijing figures will select more than a third of the legislative seats.

Many prominent democracy activists have either been jailed or are awaiting trial. Some have fled to avoid prosecution.

Hong Kong officials have also appeared to attempt to lower expectations over voting levels or to talk down the significance of a low turnout if it happens.

Chief Secretary John Lee, the city’s second-ranked official, said last weekend that foreign agents were attempting to obstruct the election. He did not provide evidence.

Mrs Lam had said in an interview on Dec 7 that the turnout could be affected by many factors.

“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 nationalist Global Times published by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party.

“Therefore, I think the turnout rate does not mean anything.”

She has also said that elections are now “much more representative with more balanced participation” and would elect those “who are patriotic to govern the city”.

Turnout in the previous election in 2016 was 58 per cent of eligible voters.

The low since the 1997 handover was 43.6 per cent in 2000.

REUTERS