BEIJING – The Chinese Communist Party is already exerting a disproportionate influence on the political landscape of Hong Kong. Its allies have long controlled a committee that selects the leader of the territory. Its loyalists dominate the Hong Kong legislature. He ousted four of the city’s elected opposition MPs last year.
Now, China is considering imposing restrictions on Hong Kong’s electoral system to eliminate candidates the Communist Party deems unfair, a move that could prevent democracy advocates in the city from running for elected office.
The planned overhaul reinforces the Communist Party’s resolve to erase the few vestiges of political dissent remaining after the anti-government protests that rocked the territory in 2019. It also builds on a national security law for the city that Beijing enacted on Friday. last summer, giving authorities sweeping powers to target dissent.
Collectively, these efforts transform Hong Kong’s free-wheeling and often disorderly partial democracy into a political system more akin to mainland China’s authoritarian system, which demands almost total obedience.
“In our country where socialist democracy is practiced, political dissent is allowed, but there is a red line here,” Xia Baolong, Chinese director of Hong Kong and Macao affairs, said Monday in a heavily worded speech describing Beijing’s intentions. “It must not be allowed to damage the fundamental system of the country – that is, to damage the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.”
The central government wants Hong Kong to be ruled by “patriots,” Xia said, and will not let the Hong Kong government rewrite the laws of the territory, as previously planned, but will do it itself.
Mr Xia did not go into details, but Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam asserted the outline of the plan, saying on Tuesday that many years of intermittent protests over Hong Kong’s political future had forced the national government to act.
When Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the territory was promised a high degree of autonomy, in addition to preserving its capitalist economic system and the rule of law.
But in the decades that followed, many of the city’s 7.5 million residents were suspicious of Beijing’s encroachment on their freedoms and broken promises of universal suffrage. The Communist Party, for its part, has been alarmed by an increasingly open resistance to its rule in the city and has blamed what it calls hostile foreign forces determined to undermine its sovereignty.
These tensions escalated in 2019 when masses of Hong Kong residents took to the streets to protest for months, in part calling for universal suffrage. They also vividly berated Beijing by offering pro-democracy candidates a resounding victory in local district elections that had long been dominated by the establishment.
The latest planned revision is aimed at avoiding such electoral upheaval and, more importantly, would also give Beijing a much tighter grip on the 1,200-member committee that will decide early next year who will be the city’s chief executive for the job. the next five years.
Different groups in Hong Kong society – bankers, lawyers, accountants and others – will vote this year to choose their representatives on the committee. The urgency of the Communist Party’s decision suggests a fear that pro-democracy sentiment in Hong Kong is so strong that the party could lose control of the committee unless it disqualifies democracy advocates from serving.
Lau Siu-kai, senior adviser to the Chinese leadership on Hong Kong policy, said the Chinese Communist Party-led national legislature should push ahead with the electoral overhaul when it meets in Beijing for its annual session starting on March 5. .
Mr Lau, a former senior Hong Kong official, said the Chinese legislature, the National People’s Congress, would likely take responsibility for creating a group of senior government officials with the legal authority to investigate every candidate for office. public and determine whether each candidate is genuinely loyal to Beijing.
The plan would cover candidates for nearly 2,000 elected positions in Hong Kong, including the committee that chooses the chief executive, the legislature and district councils, he said.
The new election law being drafted will not be retroactive, Lau said, and the current district councilors will retain their seats as long as they adhere to the law and swear loyalty to Hong Kong and China.
Beijing officials and state news media have launched a series of appeals over the past month for Hong Kong to be ruled exclusively by “patriots.” For Beijing, this term is narrowly defined as loyalty to mainland China and in particular to the Chinese Communist Party.
The main Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, raised the issue in late January with Ms Lam, telling her that having patriots rule Hong Kong was the only way to ensure the city’s long-term stability. And on Tuesday, the Hong Kong government said it would introduce a bill requiring district councilors to take an oath of loyalty and bar candidates from running for office for five years if they are deemed insincere or insufficiently patriotic. .
“You cannot say, ‘I am patriotic but I do not respect the fact that the Chinese Communist Party is running the country,” “Erick Tsang, secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs of Hong Kong, said at the meeting. ‘a press conference.
Michael Mo, a pro-democracy district councilor who has been outspoken in his criticism of the government, said he plans to take an oath of loyalty but has no control over whether it will be enough for authorities.
“It is not for me to define if I am a patriot,” said Mr. Mo. “The so-called passing mark is an unknown.”
Government initiatives could further chill free speech and political debate in the city. Since Beijing imposed the National Security Law, the city authorities have used it for a broad crackdown. They arrested more than 100 people, including activists, politicians, an American lawyer and a pro-democracy publisher.
“I can only say that people are worried about it – for example, if criticism of the Communist Party or the political system in China would be seen as unpatriotic, then they have this kind of self-censorship,” said Ivan Choy. , Senior Lecturer in Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Prior to last year’s security law, Beijing generally let the Hong Kong legislature draft and enact laws governing the territory. As a sign of how drastically the new approach is different from previous years, some Hong Kong politicians initially expressed skepticism that Beijing would again bypass local officials to enact legislation.
On Monday, hours after Mr Xia’s speech, Chinese Hong Kong affairs official Holden Chow, a pro-establishment lawmaker, said he still expected Hong Kong to formulate them itself. electoral changes, as tradition dictated.
But on Tuesday, as a battery of officials declared their hope Beijing would act directly, Mr Chow said he had changed his mind and fully supported the central government’s intention to act from above. .
He said Beijing’s actions had not diminished the influence of Hong Kong rulers. “I don’t think you will find these things very often,” he said of direct action on electoral reform and the national security law.
“It’s just related to these two big and important issues,” Mr. Chow said. “I continue to believe that in the future we still have a role to play.”
Keith Bradsher reported from Beijing, and Vivian Wang and Austin Ramzy from Hong Kong. Tiffany May contributed reporting from Hong Kong.