Major changes to Hong Kong’s election laws are expected to be introduced this week as top officials gather in Beijing for the annual meeting of China’s rubber-stamp parliament.
The “Two Sessions”, as they are known in Chinese, include the largely ceremonial meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conf
Delayed by COVID-19, last year’s event was held in May and saw the adoption of sweeping national security legislation for Hong Kong that was billed as necessary to “restore stability” following mass protests in 2019 but has led to a swift crackdown on the territory’s pro-democracy movement, including elected politicians, since it was imposed on June 30 last year.
On Sunday, Hong Kong charged 47 democracy activists with “subversion” for organising and taking part in an unofficial primary to help the pro-democracy camp choose its best candidates for elections to the city’s semi-democratic legislature, which were later delayed.
Media tycoon Jimmy Lai is also in custody awaiting trial on national security charges for alleged “collusion with foreign forces” while in November four pro-democracy legislators were disqualified from office and accused of “endangering national security”.
But more arrests and disqualifications are expected in the fallout from the NPC, which is expected to bring more political change in the former British colony.
“In the last year, we have seen Beijing taking advantage in part of the global distraction caused by the pandemic to settle scores on various fronts and try to punish figures who have interfered with their efforts to gradually bring Hong Kong more into line with mainland cities,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor in Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine and the author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink.
erence which convenes on March 4, followed by the more powerful National People’s Congress, which gets under way the following day.
“One reason all this is so chilling is that it suggests that in Beijing’s view now, there is no tolerance for even moderate actions and they want to limit the space even for non-violent expressions of opinion as much as they can,” he said.
Hints of what is to come have already appeared in recent weeks from Xia Baolong, Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong and Macau, who has said in recent speeches that only “patriots” should govern the former British colony and then doubled down with a seminar on the topic in Shenzhen, according to Chinese state media.
Further signals have come from interviews in state media with major figures who have called for Hong Kong to close electoral “loopholes”, said Julia G Bowie, editor of the Party Watch Initiative at the Washington, DC-based Center for Advanced China Research.
“The central argument is that ‘loopholes’ in the election system have allowed people that are not patriots to hold elected positions in Hong Kong, sometimes in collusion with foreign anti-China forces,” Bowie said.
“Xia Baolong laid out standards for evaluating who is a patriot, which I expect will form the basis of an evaluation system to disqualify candidates that are deemed unpatriotic. It’s easy to see how these rather nebulous standards could be used to disqualify anyone deemed hostile to the central government.”
With Hong Kong’s Legislative Council election now slated for September, after a year delay due to COVID-19, Beijing may be hoping to avoid the embarrassment of the district council elections of November 2019, which were widely seen as a referendum of support for the democracy movement after months of sometimes-violent protest.
“In terms of elections, it’s important to note that as limited as Hong Kong’s democratic institutions have always been – and they were very weak before the [1997 UK] handover and have never been robust – elections have provided a way for candidates to bring up issues and sometimes for voters to express their displeasure with the authorities and support for movements,” said Wasserstrom.
“The District Council election in November 2019 was a landslide for pro-democracy candidates, even though Beijing hoped, and its local proxies hoped, that the fact that some protesters had engaged in violent actions would alienate voters from the movement. Similarly, the latest wave of arrests has targeted largely people who were involved in a grassroots primary election, which did not vote anybody into office but provided a symbolic venue for people to express their displeasure with the status quo,” he said.