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.
The mass resignation of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy lawmakers was largely viewed as a symbolic gesture. Meant to protest to Beijing’s recently imposed law allowing the disqualification of lawmakers deemed ‘unpatriotic’ and the subsequent removal of four legislators, the move might do more harm than good. Now the pro-democracy camp has minimal representation and can yield zero influence in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government. Essentially, they have cast away their primary platform to voice objections against Beijing’s growing encroachment on Hong Kong. If anything, the legislators did Beijing a favor by falling upon their swords. A selfish move undoubtedly conceived at a time when emotions were running high and reckless.
Beijing’s move was more astute and calculated. The National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s resolution empowering the Hong Kong government to bypass the courts and remove politicians seen as threats to national security comes to being as Washington’s attention is focused on the presidential election fallout. As a result, a decisive countermove by the US is not expected. Sanctions are being discussed currently by the US and Great Britain, yet the Chinese government is confident it can contend with them.
It is a moot point whether a coordinated Western response to China’s actions in Hong Kong materializes or not. Hong Kong is now almost entirely under Beijing’s control. The city’s governing officials are not even trying to hide the fact any longer. Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said a legislature that removes the opposition “is nothing to be ashamed of” and will allow bills to be passed “more efficiently.” Her remarks coincide with the Chinese government’s stated intention to impose “comprehensive rule” over Hong Kong to increase its identity as part of the People’s Republic of China.
The light of democracy in Hong Kong is in imminent danger of being extinguished permanently in the coming months.