Hong Kong’s political reform

The Chinese government’s new election law constitutes an erosion of democracy in Hong Kong

— 6 minute read — by Derry Salter and Sam Portillo

One country, two systems?

Photo by aki Baku on Flickr.

By Derry Salter

China’s parliament approved a decision to change Hong Kong’s electoral system and further reinforce the National Security Law introduced in June 2020. The new law marks a significant shift in Hong Kong’s once somewhat democratic society as it becomes closer to the mainland system.

The National People’s Congress voted 2,895-0 to approve the changes. The measures aim to consolidate Beijing’s authoritarian grip over the former British colony. This change eliminates any possibility of the pro-democracy opposition affecting the outcome of future elections. According to the Liaison Office – Beijing’s representative body in Hong Kong – China’s “central authorities have good intentions”. Since numerous riots rocked the country in 2019, the Chinese government believe that only people patriotic to Beijing should run Hong Kong’s government. This will allow President Xi Jinping to exercise greater control over the territory.

Hong Kong is a former British colony, which was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 alongside a promise of autonomy. The deal gave the territory freedoms that mainland China do not have, as well as its own constitution and parliament. China currently controls Hong Kong through a ‘one country, two systems’ formula. The system aimed to integrate Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau with mainland China whilst preserving some sense of separation. The purpose of such a system guarantees the latter’s autonomy in all matters except for defence and foreign affairs issues.

However, fears that this model of democracy was being eroded resulted in protests. Over 2 million peacefully took to the streets in June 2019, leading to a landslide win for the democrats in Hong Kong’s local elections. However, some protests turned violent, consequently allowing the National People’s Congress to pass a law targeting sedition and bringing stability. Over 100 demonstrators have been arrested. According to one member of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing establishment, “the protests went too far…Hong Kong lost China’s trust”. In June 2020, a new law criminalised the act of secession and subversion, making it illegal to undermine authority or break away from the country. This effectively curtailed protests and freedom of speech.

The foundations for the new National Security Law have been evident in Hong Kong since 2019. In the past, pro-Beijing judges issued a landmark ruling concerning the granting of bail. For example, in 2020, the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal denied bail to media tycoon Jimmy Lai for ‘colluding with foreign forces’ through his Twitter posts. Furthermore, on 12th February, internet service providers blocked access to numerous activist websites in Hong Kong – a move similar to that in mainland China where controls restrict free speech and anonymity on the internet.

According to To Yiu-Ming, a retired journalism professor in Hong Kong, the country “is heading down a path where all parts of society…will be measured by political correctness”. Although Hong Kong enjoys many freedoms not permitted in mainland China, it’s clear that this liberation will soon disappear.

Dwindling democracy

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam smiles with Xi Jingping. Photo by Aleksandar Plavevski for EPA.

By Sam Portillo

Since it became legislation last summer, somewhere around 100 Hong Kong civilians have already been arrested under the new National Security Law. It criminalises any behaviour which authorities can claim as secession or subversion from the national government, and ‘collusion’ with foreign ones. In a move that very likely had symbolic intentions, the Beijing government affected the law the night before Hong Kong celebrated its anniversary of leaving British rule. In recent years, perhaps, the date has evoked more commiseration than anything else.

Last month, local authorities used the new law to arrest 47 pro-democracy activists. During protests, they joined a large number of civilians in shouting slogans such as “liberate Hong Kong”, before being ordered to separate into smaller groups by police. “Democracy is never a gift from heaven. It must be earned by many, with strong will,” said 33 year old Jimmy Shem, who was one of the 47 to be detained. Their crime? Organising “primaries” to determine which democrats would stand for office in local elections.

Last summer, Hong Kong police used the National Security Law to arrest multi-millionaire media mogul Jimmy Lai. With the relationship between most media entities and the political power complex benevolent at best or benign at worst, his tabloid newspaper’s often critical and cynical positions constituted a significant thorn in Beijing’s side. Lai’s detainment therefore, and the police crackdown on Apple Daily, equates to a neutering of the opposition voice.

Almost 2,000km away in Beijing, the National People’s Congress – which itself is a one-party outfit wearing a democratic disguise – is working to block anyone that is not a “patriot” from holding office in Hong Kong. Concerns in the Communist Party grew exponentially after the democrats won a landslide victory in 2019’s local elections, taking 390 out of the 452 council seats. At the same time, voter turnout increased from 47 percent in 2015 to 71, suggesting that Hong Kongers were not only mindful of the issues around civil rights and democracy, but energised enough to go out and cast a ballot.

The ‘one country, two systems’ principle, on which Hong Kong was transferred from Britain’s government back to the Chinese, dictates that the city province has the right to keep its own legal system, civil freedoms and rights. The new security law, however, supercedes any local laws that may be implemented in Hong Kong, and will be interpreted by judges in mainland China. Trials may take place off the record – if at all, and authorities are able to access and analyse the phone conversations of suspected ‘subverters’. Worryingly, this law also applies to non-permanent residents, such as those who are working for a short period of time, or visiting as tourists.

Mellow rhetoric from Beijing has not softened the international response. For its erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy, the European Union warned that it may take “additional steps”. The Biden administration, meanwhile, has wasted no time in taking a tough stance against the regime, not only formally accusing Xi’s government of breaking the Sino-British agreement, but also committing “genocide” against the Uighur Muslims. The UK Government, led by self-proclaimed sinophile Boris Johnson, has also condemned the regime’s legislation, and offered a hand to the residents of Hong Kong.

Beijing officials have since punched back, reiterating that their government will “resolutely guard against” and “deter” foreign meddling in Hong Kong affairs.

That same government has recently reported the eradication of “absolute poverty” in the country – a welcome sign of progress and modernisation. Hong Kong is even more prosperous, with a booming market economy and high living standards. Further still, China was the only major economy to avoid recession in the current course of the pandemic. Though financial livelihoods have never looked brighter, the Chinese people may soon demand freedoms of the political type – the ability to express rival thoughts, voice opposition, and advocate change. For every voice that is neutered in the province, another voice beyond the borders must grow louder.