China is intensifying its crackdown on what’s left of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, this time by taking steps to remake the territory’s electoral rules to help guarantee power for Beijing loyalists.
China’s National People’s Congress passed the new rules into law with a nearly unanimous vote during its annual meeting this week.
The changes directly target how elections are conducted in Hong Kong, ensuring that pro-Beijing loyalists have the advantage in any elections and further sidelining pro-democracy opposition politicians (those who haven’t yet been arrested).
The goal, as China’s Premier Li Keqiang said, is to guarantee that there are only “patriots governing Hong Kong.” It moves the territory even further away from the promise of true universal suffrage, one of the demands of the 2019 protests.
This electoral overhaul, coming on the heels of the national security law passed this summer that Beijing is using to stifle the pro-democracy opposition in Hong Kong, shows just how committed China is to cementing its control over the city-state. It is an effort that escalated following the massive and sustained pro-democracy movement in 2019.
This latest move, experts say, is yet another erosion of “one country, two systems,” the principle that is supposed to govern Hong Kong’s quasi-independence until 2047. The “one country” part means it is officially part of China, while the “two systems” part gave it a degree of autonomy, including rights like freedom of the press that are absent in mainland China.
“‘One country, two systems’ is over,” Carl Minzner, an expert in Chinese law at Fordham University Law School, told me in an email. “Politically, Hong Kong as we know it is finished.”
How Hong Kong got here
Protests erupted in Hong Kong in 2019 in response to a controversial extradition bill that critics feared would allow the Chinese government to arbitrarily detain Hongkongers. The fight over this legislation fueled months of protests, some tense and violent.
The bill was withdrawn in September 2019, but by then the demonstrations had transformed into a much larger fight for the future of Hong Kong and its democratic institutions.
The Hong Kong government and police crackdown against the protests fueled opposition figures. In November 2019, pro-democracy candidates won huge victories in local district council elections, in what was seen as a clear rebuke of Hong Kong’s (and China’s) leadership.
The coronavirus pandemic and social-distancing restrictions stymied public demonstrations for much of 2020. Then, in the summer, China directly intervened with the passage of a sweeping national security law, which targeted vaguely defined activities like secessionism, subversion, terrorism, and colluding with foreign forces — basically anything that could be interpreted as undermining the Chinese Communist Party.
This was seen as a “death sentence” for Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms and quasi-autonomy from mainland China. The offenses were so broadly and vaguely defined that many feared they would be weaponized to go after anyone seen as too critical of or too outspoken against the Hong Kong authorities or the Chinese government.
That has already started to happen. Dozens of pro-democracy figures were arrested under this law earlier this year. In February, 47 people were formally charged with violating the national security law and with conspiracy to commit subversion. Their crime? Participating in and helping to organize unofficial primary elections for still-postponed Legislative Council elections.
Now, China is going after those elections directly with these new rules. It’s an attempt to stamp out any influence the pro-democracy opposition has left.
What we know about the Hong Kong electoral rule changes
One of the changes involves the election for Hong Kong’s chief executive, which is scheduled for 2022. (The current chief executive is Beijing loyalist Carrie Lam.) Right now, a 1,200-person Election Committee selects the chief executive. It’s already stacked with Beijing loyalists as it is, and that Election Committee will expand by 300 members to 1,500.
That expanded committee will also have a role in picking new members of the Legislative Council (LegCo), which is expected to expand from 70 to 90 members. The LegCo elections were supposed to happen last September, but the Hong Kong government has continued to postpone them, citing the coronavirus pandemic. (Hong Kong recorded about 200 new infections in the past 14 days.)
The LegCo already had a pro-Beijing majority, and only some of the LegCo members are directly elected, but Beijing plans to reduce those seats, and will install — likely through the Election Committee — a bunch of pro-Beijing members.
All of this is to make sure those who serve in the Hong Kong government are sufficiently “patriotic” — which is a euphemistic way of saying they’ve proven their fealty to China.
There are still some details that are emerging about exactly how these changes will be implemented and when they’ll go into effect, but the larger takeaway is clear: China wants to crush any influence the pro-democracy movement has within Hong Kong’s institutions.
The scales were already heavily tipped in favor of the pro-Beijing bloc in Hong Kong. Now, China is just dismantling the scales altogether.
Why China is doing that is a harder question to answer. Jacques deLisle, an expert on Chinese law and politics at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, told me there are two theories.
The first is that China continues to see Hong Kong and its democracy movement as a threat. Even if that threat might be a bit exaggerated, this is another attempt by President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party he leads to get tough and flex their power over the territory.
The other is that China really just doesn’t care anymore about the optics of interceding in Hong Kong. “Xi Jinping and people around him have this attitude of, ‘We’re in control here. And we’re going to assert our authority. We’re doing it in the mainland, and we’re certainly not going to be a lot more lax about doing it in Hong Kong,’” deLisle told me.
In some ways, China seems to be learning the lessons of the 2019 district council elections, which are local positions that often deal with everyday, quality-of-life issues. But the pro-democracy camp’s powerful showing proved that even in Hong Kong’s partly democratic system, they could still wield influence.
All of this is grim news for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Even as the United States and its partners condemn China and Xi for these moves, the Biden administration and international partners are likely limited in what they can do to put pressure on Beijing.
Secretary of State Blinken, speaking at a House hearing this week, told lawmakers that the US needs to “continue to follow through on sanctions, for example, against those responsible for committing repressive acts in Hong Kong.”
But that is unlikely to reverse China’s latest attempt to unravel Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.