The Chinese government has made official a sweeping overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system. The changes include restrictions on democratic representation in the city that will help Beijing consolidate its grip over the city-state. Since the passing of the national security law last June, the Chinese government has moved cautiously with regard to Hong Kong. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic the world was watching Chinese actions carefully and Beijing believed it best not to rock the boat. Now, the situation has changed enough for further action to be taken.
One major change will affect the Hong Kong legislature. The number of directly-elected representatives is going to be reduced to 20 from 35 while the amount of representatives appointed by Beijing will rise considerably. A vetting system will be installed to screen potential candidates for public office. This will allow Chinese government to select candidates who are loyal to Beijing and making certain pro-democracy voices in the city-state are minimized. These measures, coupled with the national security law passed last year, constitute the largest overhaul of Hong Kong’s government and political infrastructure since the handover in 1997. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, herself a figurehead of the Chinese government, has expressed unabashed support for the overhaul. “I firmly believe that by improving the electoral system and implementing ‘patriots administering Hong Kong’, the excessive politicisation in society and the internal rift that has torn Hong Kong apart can be effectively mitigated,” Lam said yesterday. Later in the day, she said the changes will be submitted to the Legislative Council next month and are expected to be fully approved by the end of May.
Later this week at the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) the government of the People’s Republic of China is expected to present a plan to significantly reform Hong Kong’s electoral system. The few details of the plan which have come to light suggest the plan will bring major changes to Hong Kong politics and place more pressure on pro-democracy activists and politicians in the territory. The plan comes in the midst of an ongoing crackdown on political dissent in Hong Kong. Remarks made last week by senior Chinese official Xia Baolong indicate the plan is a series of systemic changes designed to allow only candidates loyal to Beijing, and hand-selected by the Chinese government, to hold public office in Hong Kong. Even though no specific details were mentioned, the tone of Xia’s remarks seem to suggest changes to how Hong Kong’s legislature is elected at the very least.
Pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong were fast to denounce the planned changes. “It totally destroys any hope for democracy in the future,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, a pro-democracy former member of Hong Kong’s legislature. “The whole concept of Xia Baolong is that the Communist Party rules Hong Kong and only those that support the party can have any role.” Lee is currently on trial for unlawful assembly charges stemming from a protest in the summer of 2019.
With Hong Kong now a major roadblock for Sino-US relations, part of Beijing’s motivation for locking up the political future of the territory is to remove Hong Kong from the gameboard. The national security law, crackdown on pro-democracy activists and now the coming plan are all components of that action. The moment is approaching when Hong Kong will irreversibly enter the mainland’s sphere of influence entirely. The moment that happens, Washington will no longer be able to factor Hong Kong into its future US-China policies and dialogue.
China will be a major foreign policy challenge for the new Biden Administration. This week’s crackdown in Hong Kong demonstrates Beijing’s determination to rid the territory of as many opposition figures as possible. On Wednesday, Hong Kong police arrested over 50 activists, former lawmakers, and academics. All of those arrested had played a role in the July 2020 effort to nominate opposition candidates for a legislative election that was cancelled later on. Under the national security law passed by Beijing, those arrested now face sentences ranging up to life in prison if convicted.
The crackdown brings into question how the incoming Biden administration will contend with China’s actions in Hong Kong, as well as what the future US response will be to Beijing’s more aggressive moves in the region and globally. Wednesday’s arrests offer a glimpse at the shape these coming policies might take. Biden’s selection for secretary of state Antony Blinken wrote on Twitter “The sweeping arrests of pro-democracy demonstrators are an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights. The Biden-Harris administration will stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy.”
Blinken’s tweet certainly sound nice and strike an appropriate balance of concern for human rights, and assurance that a Biden administration will oppose China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong. But actions speak louder than words. Will a Biden administration levy sanctions against Beijing for Hong Kong? Or will the matter be quietly swept under the rug in order to proclaim a fresh start to the US-China relationship after four years of its predecessor consistently taking a hard line on China? Time will tell.
As Hong Kong marks the twenty-third anniversary of the territory’s handover from Great Britain to China, reaction to the new national security law from abroad has put the Chinese government on the defensive. The international community is deeply concerned that the law will undermine the ‘one nation, two systems’ principle that has dominated the Mainland-Hong Kong relationship since the handover. Some nation-states have already reached the conclusion that ‘one nation, two systems’ is now dead. These are nations considerably more concerned with China’s overall strategy and moves around the entire gameboard more so than the fate of Hong Kong. Despite the level of outrage being directed at Beijing by diplomats across the globe, there is little the international community can do. Sanctions, embargoes, and political pressure will not hurt China unless backed firmly by a coalition of world powers. This scenario does not seem likely to become a reality in the coming weeks and months.
The first arrests have been made in Hong Kong under the national security law. Hong Kong’s police have not displayed any reluctance in enforcing the new law. 300 arrests were made in the protests that broke out following the law taking effect on Wednesday. Whether or not the protests continue is a moot point. The die has been cast, and Hong Kong’s future has been decided by China’s leaders. For twenty-three years the West has hoped that China would become more like Hong Kong, and the influence of capitalism there would entice Beijing to become more liberal and open. Instead, it appears the exact opposite has taken place. Reluctantly or not, Hong Kong will become more like China. The first step down this road has now been taken and there’s little chance of the city once regarded as the symbol of capitalism, and globalism ever returning to the way it was just a couple short years ago.
In a move that has been anticipated since May, the Chinese government has enacted a comprehensive national security law for Hong Kong. The standing body of the National People’s Congress (NPC) approved the law unanimously on Tuesday and President Xi Jinping endorsed it almost immediately. The measure will be incorporated into Hong Kong’s Basic Law, and the city’s Chief Executive Carry Lam said the law will begin to take effect late Tuesday. It has long been feared by activists in Hong Kong that this law will be used to silence dissent by criminalizing it, and a brief glimpse at the final text of the law reveals the activists were correct to worry. Beijing will set up its own national security bureau to prosecute cases in Hong Kong. This bureau will not be beholden to Hong Kong’s laws. It will take its marching orders directly from Beijing and operate under the auspices of PRC law. An advisor will also be appointed to oversee the Hong Kong government on national security issues. It should be noted that under the national security law being found guilty of the following four offenses could bring on a sentence of life imprisonment: The highest degree of subversion, secession, foreign interference or terrorism. With Beijing now effectively in control of law and order in Hong Kong, interpretation of these offenses, and the law overall, will be tilted in favor of the mainland government a majority of the time.
Later tomorrow I will examine the repercussions the passing of this law is going to cause on the international front.