HONG KONG -- Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced Friday that the government will postpone highly anticipated legislative elections by one year, citing a worsening coronavirus outbreak in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
The Hong Kong government is invoking an emergency ordinance in delaying the elections. Lam said the government has the support of the Chinese government in making the decision to hold the elections Sept. 5, 2021.
"The announcement I have to make today is the most difficult decision I've had to make in the past seven months," Lam said at a news conference.
"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," she said.
The postponement is a setback for the pro-democracy opposition, which was hoping to capitalize on disenchantment with the current pro-Beijing majority to make gains. 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 emphasize 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."
The city of 7.5 million people has had a surge in coronavirus infections since the beginning of July. Hong Kong has recorded more than 3,000 infections as of Friday, more than double the tally on July 1.
The government has tightened social distancing restrictions, limiting public gatherings to two people, and banned dining at restaurants after 6 p.m.
The lead-up to the elections had been closely watched after a national security law that took effect in late June stipulated that candidates who violated the law would be barred from running.
The new law was seen as Beijing's attempt to curb dissent in the city after months of pro-democracy and anti-government protests rocked Hong Kong last year over a controversial -- but now withdrawn -- extradition bill that would allow suspects to be sent to the mainland for trial.
The monthslong protests plunged Hong Kong into its largest ever political crisis, with clashes between protesters and police turning violent at times. More than 8,000 people have been arrested in connection to the protests since June 2019.
Dissatisfaction with the Hong Kong government helped the pro-democracy bloc achieve a landslide victory in district council elections last November, momentum that the opposition was hoping to ride to gain a majority in the legislature.
The White House on Friday condemned Hong Kong's decision to postpone the elections, denouncing the action a day after President Donald Trump floated the idea of delaying the U.S. presidential election in November.
"We condemn the Hong Kong government's decision to postpone for one year its legislative council elections and to disqualify opposition candidates," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said at a news briefing. Reading from a prepared statement, she characterized the move as part of an effort by China to deny "promised autonomy and freedom to the Hong Kong people."
"This action undermines the democratic processes and freedoms that have underpinned Hong Kong's prosperity and 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," she said.
China's foreign ministry insisted that Hong Kong's legislative elections are an "internal affair."
On Thursday, 12 pro-democracy candidates including prominent activist Joshua Wong were disqualified from running for not complying with the city's mini-constitution or pledging allegiance to the local and national governments.
"Beyond any doubt, this is the most scandalous election ever in Hong Kong history," Wong said at a news conference Friday. "I wish to emphasize that no reasonable man would think that this election ban is not politically driven."
Germany, which currently holds the European Union's rotating 6-month presidency, said it was suspending its extradition agreement with Hong Kong to protest the decision to postpone the elections and disqualify the candidates.
Information for this article was contributed by Zen Soo of The Associated Press; and by John Wagner of The Washington Post.