BEIJING – The Communist Party of China already wields enormous influence over the political landscape in Hong Kong. His allies have long controlled a committee that elects the leader of the territory. His loyalists dominate the Hong Kong legislature. He toppled four of the city’s elected opposition lawmakers last year.
Now, China plans to impose restrictions on Hong Kong’s electoral system to eliminate candidates that the Communist Party considers unfair, a move that could prevent defenders of democracy in the city from running for any elected office.
The planned reform reinforces the Communist Party’s determination to quell the few remaining vestiges of political dissent after the anti-government protests that rocked the territory in 2019, and is also based on a national security law for the city that Beijing enacted last summer. , giving the authorities broad powers. to target dissent.
Taken together, these efforts are transforming Hong Kong’s free and disorderly partial democracy into a political system that more closely resembles the authoritarian system of mainland China, demanding almost total obedience.
“In our country where socialist democracy is practiced, political dissent is allowed, but there is a red line here,” Xia Baolong, China’s Hong Kong and Macau affairs director, said Monday in a spirited speech outlining intentions. from Beijing. “It must not be allowed to damage the fundamental system of the country, that is, damage the leadership of the Communist Party of China.”
The central government wants Hong Kong to be ruled by “patriots,” Xia said, and will not allow the Hong Kong government to rewrite the laws of the territory, as previously expected, but will do so itself.
Xia did not elaborate, but Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam affirmed the broad outlines 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 the preservation of its capitalist economic system and the rule of law.
But in the decades since, many of the city’s 7.5 million residents have grown wary of Beijing’s usurpation of their freedoms and broken promises of universal suffrage. The Communist Party, for its part, has been alarmed by the increasingly open resistance to its rule in the city and has blamed what it calls hostile foreign forces bent on undermining its sovereignty.
These tensions escalated in 2019 when masses of Hong Kong residents took to the streets in protests for months, calling in part for universal suffrage. They also gave a forceful rebuke to Beijing by handing pro-democracy candidates a surprising victory in local district elections that had long been dominated by the establishment.
The latest planned reform seeks to prevent such electoral upheavals and, more importantly, it would also give Beijing much tighter control over the 1,200-member committee that will decide early next year who will be the city’s chief executive during the years. next five years.
Different groups in Hong Kong society (bankers, lawyers, accountants and others) will vote this year to elect their representatives on the committee. The urgency of the Communist Party’s move suggests concerns 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 politics, said the national legislature led by the Communist Party of China was expected to push for the electoral review when it meets in Beijing for its annual session starting on March 5. .
Lau, a former senior Hong Kong official, said that the Chinese legislature, the National People’s Congress, would likely act to create a high-level group of government officials with the legal authority to vet every candidate for public office and determine whether every candidate is genuinely loyal to Beijing.
The plan would cover candidates for nearly 2,000 elected positions in Hong Kong, including the committee that elects the chief executive, the legislature and the district councils, he said.
The new electoral law being drafted now will not be retroactive, Lau said, and current district councilors will retain their seats as long as they adhere to the law and pledge allegiance to Hong Kong and China.
Beijing officials and state media have made a large number of calls over the past month for Hong Kong to be run exclusively by people who are “patriots.” For Beijing, that term is strictly defined as loyalty to mainland China and particularly to the Chinese Communist Party.
China’s top leader Xi Jinping raised the issue with Ms Lam in late January, telling her that having the 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 that would require district councilors to take oaths of allegiance and bar candidates from running for public office for five years if they are deemed insincere or insufficiently patriotic.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m a patriot, but I don’t respect the fact that the Chinese Communist Party is leading the country,'” Erick Tsang, Hong Kong’s secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, said at a news conference. .
Michael Mo, a pro-democracy district councilor who has been outspoken in his criticism of the government, said he planned to take an oath of allegiance but had no control over whether that would be enough for authorities.
“It is not for me to define if I am a patriot,” Mo said. “The so-called mark of approval is unknown.”
The government’s measures 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 extensive crackdown. They have arrested more than 100 people, including activists, politicians, an American lawyer and a pro-democracy editor.
“I can only say that people worry about it, for example, if criticism of the Communist Party or the political system in China would be considered unpatriotic, then they have this kind of self-censorship,” said Ivan Choy, senior professor of government and administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Before last year’s security law, Beijing generally let the Hong Kong legislature draft and enact laws governing the territory. In a sign of how drastic the change from the new approach of previous years is, some Hong Kong politicians initially expressed skepticism that Beijing would once again bypass local officials to enact laws.
On Monday, hours after Mr. Xia’s speech, the Chinese official in charge of Hong Kong affairs, Holden Chow, a pro-system lawmaker, said that he was still waiting for Hong Kong to formulate the electoral changes on its own, as it was tradition.
But on Tuesday, when a number of officials declared their expectation that Beijing would act directly, Chow said he had changed his mind and fully supported the central government’s intention to act from on high.
He said Beijing’s actions did not diminish the influence of Hong Kong leaders. “I don’t think you find these things very often,” he said of direct action on electoral reform and the national security law.
“It’s just in relation to these two important and important issues,” Chow said. “I still 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.