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How China Has Crushed Hong Kong’s Democracy

Anti-government demonstrators are detained by riot police during a protest in Hong Kong, China, May 27, 2020. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)
And the worst part is, it’s not even done yet.

On March 11, an annual confab of functionaries rubber-stamped a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) plan to gut most of what is left of Hong Kong’s democratic processes. At the “Two Sessions” meeting, or Lianghui, over 5,000 members of the CCP elite — members of both the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the National People’s Conference — adopted the “Decision on the Improvement of the Electoral System of the HKSAR” by a vote of 2895–0, with one abstention.

Party officials hailed the emergence of “a new democratic system with Hong Kong characteristics,” a facile denial of Hong Kong’s proud tradition of limited but vivid democracy. Indeed, what is coming is an electoral system in Hong Kong with Chinese Communist Party characteristics.

The changes approved at the “Two Sessions” will restructure Hong Kong’s Electoral Affairs Commission (EAC) in ways that will strengthen the CCP’s control over electoral processes. In addition to electing the chief executive, the EAC will now elect a larger proportion of the Legislative Council members and participate directly in the nomination of all candidates to the body. The most potent change is to introduce a pro-Beijing litmus test for candidates: Henceforth, their “patriotism” will now need to be established. Lo Kin-hei, chair of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, called this “the biggest regression of the system since the handover.”

Xi Jinping’s motives behind the idea of “patriots ruling Hong Kong” are obvious. He and other CCP leaders believe that Hong Kong authorities have been overly tolerant of the democratic opposition for the past 20 years, giving Hong Kongers the impression they could arm-wrestle with the central government, which they imagine would not dare to turn the tables on them because of the interests of the so-called foreign powers in Hong Kong. The central government had been trying to make Hong Kong a positive example of “one country, two systems” to appeal to Taiwan.

But while the model found no acceptance in Taiwan, Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen used it to make waves in Hong Kong itself. Since Taiwan has made it clear that peaceful reunification is not possible, the role of Hong Kong as a model has become meaningless, and the Chinese central government has begun to gradually clean up the problems left behind by policy blunders when reformulating a new program for Taiwan. With a new American administration showing little inclination to soften the stiffer stance toward China established by President Trump, the relationship between China and the United States has deteriorated to the worst level since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. So patience has lost its rationale.

Given this, it’s not surprising that the U.S. has condemned the CPP’s changes to Hong Kong’s internal governance. But other Western governments have joined the U.S. in its condemnations. U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken tweeted that the changes “run counter to PRC international commitments,” and that “we stand with allies and partners speaking out for the rights and freedoms of the people in Hong Kong.” In a review of political conditions in Hong Kong, the European Union described an ”alarming political deterioration” and a “severe erosion of autonomy, democracy, and fundamental freedoms,” promising undisclosed “further steps” in response. The Group of Seven (G7) nations expressed “grave concerns” about the plan, predicting boldly that it would “stifle political pluralism.” A statement from the foreign secretary’s office said that the United Kingdom would now consider China to be in a state of ongoing non-compliance with the Sino-British Joint Declaration that was supposed to guarantee Hong’s Kong’s autonomy and rule of law until 2047. “China must act in accordance with its legal obligations and respect fundamental rights and freedoms in Hong Kong,” U.K. foreign secretary Dominic Raab said. But Beijing simply shrugged off this command, saying that Hong Kong’s electoral system was China’s internal affair.

To the extent that the CCP addresses critics of its changes to Hong Kong’s governance, it does so in a manner consistent with its preference for defensive victim-narratives, claiming that these changes were forced upon the regime by external and internal threats. At the meeting of the National People’s Congress, Wang Chen, vice president of the body, explained that since the “anti-extradition legislation movement” in Hong Kong in 2019, anti-China forces and local radical separatist forces have openly advocated for “Hong Kong independence” and other anti-CCP ideas using election platforms, at both the Legislative Council and District Councils levels. Wang warned that democrats sought (gasp!) to take control of the Legislative Council through elections and to seize the right to govern Hong Kong. He claimed that “foreign forces” had openly interfered in Hong Kong affairs through consular offices, nongovernmental organizations, and other channels, and that the U.S. had even imposed brutal “sanctions” on Chinese officials, blatantly supporting and providing protection for “anti-China forces” in Hong Kong.

In further delegitimizing democratic political actors and casting them as threats, the amendments suggest that additional mass arrests of pro-democracy and independence activists who are supposedly “anti-China and anti-Hong Kong” are coming. After the implementation of the Hong Kong National Security Law last July, there was debate among CCP elites over whether Beijing would immediately settle scores with the Hong Kong democratic opposition or deploy a tactical delay.

Some believed that, in view of the potentially strong backlash against the law and widespread opposition from Western countries, Beijing should assess the law’s effectiveness over a period of time before deciding on the next step to take, as long as the opposition in Hong Kong did not cause trouble and boycott the Hong Kong government and the central government. These relative moderates thought the majority of opposition figures should be spared, except for a handful of black hands and ringleaders as a warning to others. But others believed that the “anti-extradition legislation” protests in Hong Kong had shocked Beijing too much, and since Xi Jinping had already introduced the national-security law against Hong Kong, he should liquidate democracy activists one by one.

Now it is clear that Xi Jinping chose the second option. Soon after the promulgation of the National Security Law, Beijing launched a strike-hard “counter-offensive” against the democratic opposition in Hong Kong. Those who were active in the protests were invariably sought by the Hong Kong government (unless they had fled to Taiwan or the West). On the eve of the Two Sessions, Hong Kong courts have brought charges and arraigned 47 people in what Beijing has dubbed the “anti-China-and-ruin–Hong Kong 47 people China’s rebellion” case, the largest trial in the eight months since the implementation of the National Security Law.

After enacting that law, Xi’s next move toward finally checkmating democracy in Hong Kong was revamping Hong Kong’s electoral mechanism. State-oriented Chinese scholars have publicly claimed that executive power will be firmly in the hands of “patriots,” effectively excluding “anti-China” forces from entering the governance structure. Space for “street politics — demonstrating and campaigning” to enter the political stage will be limited or even eliminated.

Xi’s step-by-step approach to the subjugation of Hong Kong suggests that efforts to further cleanse the so-called Hong Kong independence factor and impose “patriotic” cadres in the education, media, and local community sectors will be next. His final step will be to require this newly “patriotic” Hong Kong government to build — that is, buy — political support by reducing wealth disparities and engineering employment and housing opportunities for the younger generation.

Beijing is unlikely to publicly announce the abolition of the hollowed-out “one country, two systems” model, and it will even keep it after the 50-year transition period expires. However, the implementation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong and the electoral-system revamp have rendered it a nullity. Economic integration with the mainland and the full political implementation of “patriots ruling Hong Kong” means there is no difference between Hong Kong and its counterparts in Shenzhen or Shanghai. Beijing does not care whether Hong Kong is a special trade zone or not.

Immune to verbal assaults from the West, the CCP is confident of its power to deal with foreign capitalists and influence policy-makers in the West. Its leaders think they have done it successfully in the three decades following the 1989 Tiananmen incident, not only getting out of an unprecedented political crisis, domestically and internationally, but also emerging as a global economic leader. It is unclear how international capital will react to Beijing’s Hong Kong economic policy, and how capital will influence the West’s Hong Kong politics. What is clear is that the central government will never stop until the British and American legacy in Hong Kong is eradicated. The grim situation poses an unprecedented challenge to the democratic movement in Hong Kong as well as to those members of the international community who believe that all people deserve political freedom.

Jianli Yang is the founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. Aaron Rhodes is the human-rights editor of Dissident magazine and the president of the Forum for Religious Freedom Europe.

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