The first Legislative Council election in Hong Kong in the aftermath of Beijing’s controversial “patriots-only” overhaul of the political system has been swept by Beijing loyalists amid a record-low turnout of only 30.2 per cent, lowest since Hong Kong returned to Chinese control in 1997.

After China altered the city’s political landscape in March, the number of directly elected seats was reduced to just 20 seats out of 90, less than a quarter from an earlier proportion of around 50%. The election in which only candidates vetted by the government as “patriots” could run, has been criticized as undemocratic by some foreign governments, rights groups, and mainstream Hong Kong pro-democracy parties, which did not participate in the polls. Critics say Hong Kong’s democratic processes and institutions have been eroded as no candidates from the city’s opposition parties were on the ballot, with most of their leaders in jail or in exile following a crackdown stemming from a national security law imposed last year.

Officials downplayed the record drop in voter participation in ‘patriots only’ polls while pro-democracy activists took it as a rebuke to China after it imposed a broad national security law and sweeping electoral changes to bring the city more firmly under its authoritarian grip. As per media reports, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said at a news conference on Monday that turnout was indeed low and said the government needed to work to enhance public acceptance of the overhaul of the city’s electoral system.

The Hong Kong branch of China’s foreign ministry said the electoral system was an internal affair and urged “foreign forces” not to interfere. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian at the regular press conference in Beijing criticized “anti-China forces for smearing the new electoral system” in Hong Kong and held them partly responsible for low voter turnout.

Following the results, China’s State Council released a policy white paper on Monday hailing the “democratic progress” Hong Kong had experienced. It said China had “restored order” and brought “democracy back on track” in Hong Kong, criticizing the often-violent 2019 protests. The Asian financial hub was rocked by anti-Beijing and pro-democracy protests for several years before Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on it in 2020 which has made it easier to punish pro-democracy demonstrators, while Hong Kong authorities have jailed dozens of activists in recent months.