China tightens grip on Hong Kong electoral system
ADozens of pro-Chinese lawmakers in the Hong Kong legislature rose in May to praise a bill giving Beijing an effective veto over city election candidates, only one lawmaker has condemned this decision.
“Cronyism will be the main precondition for this election,” said Cheng Chung-tai, then the only opposition member directly elected to the legislature, after the others resigned or were removed from their posts. “Corruption is inevitable,” he told the assembly at the time.
At the end of August, Cheng was dismissed from his post by the committee he criticized, which judged that he had not “really respected” the city charter. On September 3, he announced the dissolution of his political party, Civic Passion.
“Faced with the reality that there is no way forward in politics, the party solemnly announces its dissolution with immediate effect,” he wrote on Facebook. Cheng did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Cheng’s withdrawal from the Hong Kong legislature marks another step in overturning what China has had closest to an open electoral system. In the past 10 months, nearly 300 elected lawmakers and district councilors from pro-democracy groups have resigned or been removed from their posts as Beijing claimed broad new national security powers to jail opposition leaders and remake politics in the former British colony.
Hong Kong police on Wednesday arrested four members of the group that traditionally held the annual vigil for the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 after refusing to cooperate with a national security investigation.
With their critics on the run, the representatives chosen by the Chinese president in Hong Kong are building a system that will make the opposition’s return to elected office much riskier. Hong Kong hosted the first of four swearing-in ceremonies scheduled for district councilors on Friday who subject oath-takers to the threat of prosecution and, potentially, demand reimbursement of their office expenses if they make a ‘fake’ commitment or are otherwise deemed to violate it. Next week, the city will begin filling a reshuffled committee that will select the successor to Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam in March, with only “patriots” approved as voters.
“It is obvious that those who were people or parties mandated by the people are no longer able to enter the system,” says Eric Lai, Hong Kong law researcher at the Center for Asian Law at the University of Georgetown. âThe political system in Hong Kong will become much more closed, exclusive, only in favor of those who are loyal to the government. And it looks like some key elements of good governance or meritocracy between now and the elections will fade, which is not good for Hong Kong’s economic and financial situation. “
For his part, Lam insisted that Hong Kong’s electoral changes were not aimed “at eliminating the opposition”, arguing that the National Security Law and other measures restored the stability of the Asian financial center after massive and sometimes violent street protests in 2019. Yet at a press conference on Tuesday in which Lam announced the district councilors’ swearing-in ceremony, officials repeatedly stressed the risk of dismissal and criminal investigation for offenders.
“If you have a clear conscience, you don’t have to look over your shoulders,” Caspar Tsui, Lam’s secretary for home affairs, told reporters. “But I would like to say that if anyone is suspected of breaking the law, if necessary, we will refer the matter to law enforcement.”
A Hong Kong government official referred a request for further comment to remarks by Chief Secretary John Lee on August 26, in which he said the next elections would be held under a “broadly representative system.” free from corruption.
China continued to overhaul the elections despite international condemnation. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the effort a “direct attack on the autonomy promised to the people of Hong Kong under the Sino-British joint declaration” which paved the way for the city’s return. to Chinese rule in 1997.
The oaths and purges represent the culmination of a Beijing-led campaign to roll back a series of electoral setbacks, especially the district council vote nearly two years ago. With him, pro-democracy groups have not only demonstrated their broad public support by winning 85% of the available seats, but they have shaken Beijing’s confidence in its ability to secure loyalist control of the city government.
Building on the momentum of massive street protests earlier that year, nearly 3 million people voted in the 2019 election. This strong performance earned them additional scores on the electoral committee to select Lam’s successor and, moreover, , suggested that the opposition was on track to win an unprecedented majority in the legislative council in 2020.
Beijing had resisted efforts to establish democracy in Hong Kong decades before the handover, then Prime Minister Zhou Enlai pressuring the British against democratic reforms in the 1950s. Chinese officials protested the efforts of then-Hong Kong governor Chris Patten to increase the number of elected seats in the legislative council, even as they agreed to include a pledge to establish “universal suffrage” in the city charter.
The 2019 defeat was the “last straw” for China’s confidence in the ability of local pro-Beijing elites to predict and manage local politics, according to a Hong Kong-based Western diplomat. And the stakes were rising: the opposition had proposed a plan to use a majority in the legislative council to vote against Lam’s budget and trigger his resignation – a power granted to the legislature in the city’s basic law.
“The landslide victory of the district councils in 2019 was a warning to the Chinese Communist Party that the same would happen in the legislative council,” said To Ka-lun, a former district councilor who resigned and moved to the UK . “The first point was to stop the election of the legislative council.”
Beijing’s response was swift. Weeks after the November 2019 vote, China replaced two of its most senior officials overseeing the city. The new officials – Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Bureau Chief Xia Baolong and Liaison Office Director Luo Huining – quickly announced a more concrete role, issuing statements criticizing opposition figures and demanding measures to curb their activities.
The security law promulgated by China’s highest legislative body in June 2020 was just the start. Weeks later, authorities suspended legislative council elections scheduled for September for more than a year.
“What the National Security Law and the accompanying measures mean is that Beijing has zero tolerance for any dissent in Hong Kong,” said Victoria Hui, associate professor of political science at the University of Our Lady specializing in Hong Kong politics. âIn Beijing’s eyes, the district council itself must be stifled, and elections for the legislative council and chief executive could not be opened. ”
Then came the purges. In November, the government disqualified four pro-democracy lawmakers who had previously been barred from re-election. In protest, 15 other opposition lawmakers resigned en masse, leaving only Cheng on this side of the chamber.
Later, dozens of activists who participated in a July 2020 primary to choose candidates for the campaign to force Lam’s resignation were arrested under the security law. The government accused the defendants of plotting to “cripple the government and seriously interfere with, disrupt and undermine the exercise of government functions and duties.”
With the legislative elections suspended, Beijing adopted the overhaul of the elections. The new rules removed the district councilors from the electoral committee and stuffed it with hundreds of additional unelected worshipers. The body was given powers to examine candidates for patriotism and send candidates to the legislature. The number of directly elected legislative seats has been reduced from 35 to 20.
To is one of more than 260 district councilors who resigned before the pledge of loyalty. He says he left Hong Kong because he feared he would be arrested for attending the primary.
For To, this long-standing debate over democratic reform in Hong Kong has been settled. Cheng’s withdrawal from the legislative council underscores the futility of participating in a system where politicians are vetted for their loyalty to China.
âUnder these circumstances, I think we – and by us, I mean Pan Democrats – should not participate in the current political arena in Hong Kong,â To said. âIf the process isn’t fair , the laws will not be fair.