The delay has marked a setback for the anti-China camp, which had aimed to win a majority of seats in the legislature. Joshua Wong, one of the disqualified candidates, said their resistance will continue despite crackdowns under the new security law.
Hong Kong has postponed the city's key legislative election, dealing a blow to the hopes of the anti-Beijing opposition in the China-run city.
Leader Carrie Lam announced on Friday the delay of the September election due to a spike in Covid-19 cases, calling it the hardest decision she has made in the last seven months, even as the opposition cried foul.
“We want to ensure fairness and public safety and health, and need to make sure the election is held in an open, fair and impartial manner. This decision is therefore essential," Lam said.
The city was set to vote on September 6, its first under a new security law.
White House condemns Hong Kong's decision
The White House has condemned Hong Kong's decision to postpone a September 6 election for its legislature, saying it was the latest example of Beijing undermining democracy in the Chinese-ruled city.
"This action undermines the democratic processes and freedoms that have underpinned Hong Kong's prosperity," White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany told reporters on Friday.
"This is only the most recent in a growing list of broken promises by Beijing, which promised autonomy and freedoms to the Hong Kong people until 2047 in the Sino-British joint declaration."
The opposition had hoped to ride a wave of resentment against Beijing imposing the harsh law to election victory despite the disqualification by authorities of 12 of its candidates.
Prominent dissident Joshua Wong said earlier on Friday that Hong Kong's beleaguered anti-Beijing camp will continue to fight Beijing's crackdown on the city's political freedoms. Wong is one of the 12 activists barred from standing for election.
"Our resistance will continue on and we hope the world can stand with us in the upcoming uphill battle," he told reporters.
Life under China's security law
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said, also on Friday, that Hong Kong's Covid-19 outbreak was a factor in the city's election, which was a domestic issue.
Since the imposition of the law on June 30 to punish what China broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, the crackdown on opposition forces has intensified.
More candidates are expected to be barred in coming days.
The reasons cited by the pro-Beijing city government for the disqualification of opposition candidates included what authorities perceive as subversive intentions, opposition to the new national security law, and a campaign to obtain a majority that can block legislation.
In the press conference, Wong said the reasons for disqualifying him from the election are "invalid and ridiculous."
Where does the government stand?
The Lam government denies political censorship or suppression of the right to run for the legislature, where only half of the seats are directly elected, while the other half is stacked with pro-Beijing figures. Critics called the move a political purge.
Hong Kong police also arrested four students aged 16-21 on suspicion they threatened the world superpower's national security by allegedly being involved in an online group that pledged to use every means to fight for Hong Kong independence.
Critics say the new law crushes rights and freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, while supporters say it will restore stability after a year of often-violent anti-establishment protests.
Beijing will send personnel to Hong Kong to help with coronavirus testing and the building of treatment centres, as the semi-autonomous city faces its worst outbreak of the virus, China's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office said on Friday.
Hong Kong has reported more than 3,000 coronavirus cases since January, far lower than in other major cities around the world. The government has restricted group gatherings to two people to fight the spread.
Rival finance hub Singapore, which has had a larger coronavirus outbreak, held a general election this month.
At least 68 countries and territories have delayed national or regional elections due to the coronavirus since February, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance said.
At least 49 countries and territories have decided to hold national or subnational elections, it said.
Virus infections raise
Hong Kong reported a total of 3,273 cases as of Friday, including 27 deaths. The city had gone weeks without any known locally transmitted cases until the beginning of July, when an outbreak began.
The total number of infections has more than doubled since July 1. Lam said on Tuesday that the city is on the verge of large-scale community outbreak which could lead to a collapse of its hospital system.
The city has tightened social-distancing measures, banning dine-in eating at restaurants after 6 pm and restricting public gatherings to two people.
Accusations against government
A group of 22 lawmakers issued a statement ahead of the announcement accusing the government of using the outbreak as an excuse to delay the vote.
“Incumbent pro-democracy legislators, who represent 60% of the public’ s opinion, collectively oppose the postponement and emphasise the responsibility of the SAR government to make every effort to arrange adequate anti-epidemic measures to hold elections in September as scheduled,” the group said, referring to the territory's official name, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
“Otherwise, it is tantamount to uprooting the foundation of the establishment of the SAR.”
'Cynical move to contain a political emergency'
The postponement has also drawn criticism from the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.
“Postponing the September elections for a year is a cynical move to contain a political emergency, not a public health one. This simply allows Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam to deny Hong Kong people their right to choose their government," said Sophie Richardson, the group's China director.
“Without making any attempt to look at alternative methods of voting, or ensuring all voting rights will be respected, Lam and her backers in Beijing are merely masking repression under the guise of public health,” she said.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on a radio show in the US on Thursday that the elections in Hong Kong “must proceed on time.”