Hong Kong is no longer what it was known for a few years back. The Chinese Communist Party continues to dismantle the city’s democratic ethos, the latest being the drama of Legislative Council polls. Beijing has also managed to erase its bloody past from public memory.
A week ago, on December 19, the people of Hong Kong went to polls to elect the members of its highest law-making body, the Legislative Council (LegCo) for the first time since the imposition of the controversial national security law in June, last year.
However, it was not a real ‘election’ in any sense of the term, as the candidates were ‘screened’ by the Chinese government in Beijing to clear the “patriotism test” before being declared eligible to run, according to a resolution passed by China’s rubber-stamp parliament known as the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March, this year.
The record-low 30.2 per cent turnout was the lowest since the UK returned the city to Chinese rule in 1997 under the promise of the policy of ‘one country, two systems’. The turnout in the previous LegCo election in 2016 was 58 per cent, while the second-lowest turnout was 43.6 per cent in 2000.
The division of seats in the LegCo
The current electoral overhaul, as envisioned in the March 2021 NPC resolution, included the expansion of LegCo seats from 70 to 90. Among these seats, 40 are filled in by the pro-Beijing Election Committee, consisting of 1500 members (risen from previously 1200), which until now only elected the city’s top-most official, the Chief Executive.
Only 20 seats are directly elected by the people of the city from geographical constituencies (reduced from previously 35). The remaining 30 seats are functional constituencies representing various sectors such as labour, trade, banking and so on.
Beijing’s terms set the electoral stage in Hong Kong
Anyone wanting to be a member of the LegCo or the Election Committee or even a candidate for the office of the Chief Executive will be vetted by a separate so-called ‘screening committee’. This is envisioned to bar anyone deemed as being critical of the CCP-led government in Beijing. Thus, the character of LegCo itself is being subjected to alterations, thereby diluting the influence of directly-elected members of the Council.
Only three of the 153 candidates contesting the polls have openly identified as ‘pro-democracy’, symbolizing the birth of a new political culture in the city, regulated under the authoritarian grip of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As expected, when the results were out, almost half of the seats went to candidates picked by the pro-Beijing Election Committee.
The latest in a series of crackdown attempts
Most of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leaders and activists are now either in jail or in exile and journalists silenced. Calls to boycott the election or to leave the ballots blank as a form of registering protest were met with arbitrary arrests and detention. The national security law has been used to systematically target democratic aspirations and voices of dissent in the city.
In the last one decade, Beijing has been undertaking a series of interventions to undermine Hong Kong’s Special Administrative Region (SAR) status and its democratic character different from the mainland, as envisioned in the Basic Law that functions as a mini-Constitution of the city, which is in effect since July 1997.
A Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984 guaranteed that Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs for 50 years from 1997, i.e., up to 2047. But, Beijing is apparently not willing to honour this commitment or wait to legitimately get hold over Hong Kong, which was first lost to Britain in 1842 under the Treaty of Nanking, following the First Opium War (1839-42).
Almost a decade ago, in 2012, Hong Kong’s school curriculum was tweaked in lines with the CCP’s propaganda. Two years later, in 2014, the city saw what was known as the ‘Umbrella Movement’, as pro-democracy protesters used umbrellas to protect them from the tear gas used by police and from the sun. It came as a response to Beijing’s unilateral attempt to tamper with the city’s free electoral system and universal suffrage, bringing parts of the city to a standstill for over two months.
But, the largest ever protests the city ever witnessed unfolded in 2019 with the outbreak of massive protests and rallies by tens of thousands of democratic activists against a proposed legislation allowing criminal suspects from the city to be extradited to mainland China in an arbitrary manner. On one day in mid-June that year, the number of protesters even went up to two million, according to Amnesty International.
Around 88,000 Hong Kong citizens, who have experienced the fruits of democracy for long and wishes to escape Beijing’s authoritarian rule, have applied for the new visa pathway to the UK (British National Overseas) in the first nine months since its launch in late January, this year, according to a latest report by the UK Foreign Office.
Beijing’s recent acts of erasing public memory
By turning the LegCo upside down, the Chinese Communist Party has almost accomplished the task of dismantling Hong Kong’s democratic institutions one by one. The most recent episode in a series of steps taken by the party was the removal of an eight-metre-tall statue named ‘Pillar of Shame’ from the University of Hong Kong (HKU) campus, a couple of days back.
The monument symbolically commemorated the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tanks went on a rampage through Beijing’s central area, killing hundreds of unarmed civilians and innocent non-combatants, mostly students and the youth, aimed at ending weeks of pro-democracy protests.
The HKU incident was followed by the removal of artworks depicting similar message from two other universities in Hong Kong. This is a testament to the CCP’s continuing efforts to erase its bloody past from public memory. Commemorating the victims of Tiananmen Square massacre is already banned in the mainland by the CCP and it has been erased from Chinese history books.
It’s the turn of Hong Kong now, and it could be Taiwan sooner or later, as recent geopolitical developments in East Asia show. With a completely pro-Beijing ruling establishment, Hong Kong is incapable of effectively resisting the CCP’s historical revisionist agenda and the people remain divided into pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps.
Post Script: The region is squaring up to an untamed Dragon, breathing fire on one of the most desirable Asian Tigers. And next, it could presumably be heading east, as indications show, towards another one lying across the Strait. Can the mighty Eagle tame the Dragon and prevent another fire? Well, I’m leaving it here for another piece.