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EXCLUSIVE: Beijing tells foreign consulates to ‘apply’ before setting up ballot boxes for expat citizens

HKFP Exclusive

The Beijing authorities have asked Hong Kong’s foreign consulates to make a “formal note of application” before they set up election ballot boxes for their expatriate citizens living in the city.

According to a letter seen by HKFP, the respective embassies in Beijing are required to inform China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs before their local consulates set up temporary ballot stations for elections.

Chinese Hong Kong flag

Chinese and Hong Kong flags outside the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong. Photo: Facebook/MFAofficeHK.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Protocol Guidelines for Diplomatic Missions in China stated that if diplomatic missions need to set ballot boxes on their premises or organise voter registration for general elections, they should notify Beijing’s Protocol Department of the time and procedure of the voting activities.

However, local consulates contacted by HKFP said that the requirement stated in the recent letter was new to them. Some of them had previously informed the Hong Kong government before conducting polls on their premises whilst others had not believed it necessary.

The letter from China’s Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong was dated April 19, 2018 and sent to all consulates. HKFP confirmed the authenticity of the letter with officials at five separate consulates.

It read:

The Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region presents its compliments to all the consulates general in Hong Kong and has the honor to inform the latter that this office would like to reiterate the appropriate procedure for application to set up temporary ballot station in Hong Kong.

If temporary ballots need to be set up inside or outside consular premises for citizens living in Hong Kong during a general election of the sending state, a formal note of application should be sent by the embassy of the sending country in Beijing to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government will provide necessary assistance in accordance with the reply note of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region avails itself of this opportunity to renew to all consulates general in Hong Kong the assurances of its highest consideration.

Hong Kong, April 19, 2018.

Article 13 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, stipulates that the central government shall be responsible for the foreign affairs relating to Hong Kong. But the central government authorises Hong Kong to conduct relevant external affairs on its own in accordance with the Basic Law.

‘Emphasis of sovereignty’

Dr Kenneth Chan, an associate professor at the Department of Government and International Studies of the Baptist University of Hong Kong, told HKFP that consulates were not required to notify Beijing in the past when temporary ballot stations were set up.

Chan, a former Civic Party lawmaker, said the new arrangement was “naïve and silly.”

“Under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle, Hong Kong has a relatively special status. The international community sees Hong Kong as a part of China, but it also has its own high degree of autonomy,” he said. “Consul Generals in Hong Kong have a similar status with the Ambassadors in Beijing.”

“It is difficult to interpret this message from Beijing, but I believe it is linked to [Chinese President] Xi Jinping’s emphasis of sovereignty under his rule, in order to let the international community understand that Hong Kong cannot be seen as having a very special status.”

Kenneth Chan

Kenneth Chan. Photo: Handout.

Chan said he did not understand what kind of assistance the Hong Kong government could provide with foreign elections, except the involvement of the police relating to public order issues.

“[Beijing] is turning everything into a diplomatic issue which the Hong Kong government has no power to handle,” he said.

“There is no reasonable explanation other than a psychological urge of declaring China’s sovereignty,” he added. “It may harm Hong Kong’s international image and status.”

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EXCLUSIVE: Beijing tells foreign consulates to 'apply' before setting up ballot boxes for expat citizens