World

National People’s Congress passes change to electoral laws. Joe Biden to hold first key leaders’ meeting as US president.

By Jonathan Pearlman.

China amps up crackdown on Hong Kong democracy

Joshua Wong walks to a prison van to head to court with other pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong last week.
Credit: Reuters / Tyrone Siu

End of democracy

Hong Kong: China planned to overhaul the electoral laws of Hong Kong this week to ensure the government is controlled by pro-Beijing “patriots” – a move that critics say will crush the territory’s last vestiges of democracy.

The changes, which were approved on Thursday by China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, are set to reduce the proportion of democratically elected legislators in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. The laws will reportedly also require candidates for the council to be nominated by a pro-Beijing “election committee”.

Chris Patten, Britain’s last colonial governor of Hong Kong, said the proposed changes marked “the biggest step so far to obliterate Hong Kong’s freedoms and aspirations for greater democracy under the rule of law”.

Pro-democracy candidates for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council typically win a sizeable majority of the vote, but they do not control the chamber because half of its seats are chosen by industry sectors that tend to select pro-Beijing representatives. However, the new laws are set to further erode the voice of democratically elected members.

On Tuesday, a senior Chinese official in Hong Kong, Song Ru’an, said the measures would close electoral loopholes that were being exploited by “destabilising forces”.

The laws mark a further effort by China to impose authority over the territory and to undermine the “one country, two systems” principle that is supposed to apply to Hong Kong until China gains complete control in 2047. Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, provides for universal suffrage, though it does not specify how or when free elections are to be introduced. 

Crackdown on dissent

China’s electoral changes are the latest step in its effort to defeat the pro-democracy movement following protests in 2019 and 2020 that attracted hundreds of thousands of people and led to violent clashes between the demonstrators and security forces.

The most drastic move towards eliminating dissent was the introduction last year of a national security law for Hong Kong, which allows authorities to crack down on political crimes such as subversion and sedition and has been used to target prominent democracy supporters. China says the law was necessary to impose order on the territory.

Earlier this month, a judge in Hong Kong ordered that a group of 47 pro-democracy activists who were charged with conspiracy to commit subversion should remain in custody. The group included prominent activists Benny Tai and also Joshua Wong, who is already serving a 13-and-a-half-month jail sentence on charges related to the 2019 protests.

The detention of the 47 activists, who were charged over their role in holding an unofficial primary poll for the Legislative Council elections, prompted the first serious protests since last year. Earlier this month, an estimated 1000 people rallied outside a court to demand the release of the prisoners. A 57-year-old protester, Herbert Chow, told Reuters: “This is the most ridiculous arrest in the history of Hong Kong.”

The security law has been used to detain other prominent democracy supporters such as the media mogul Jimmy Lai, who was arrested in August 2020. Others have gone into exile, including Nathan Law, a former student campaigner who fled to Britain. On Wednesday, Law, who has remained a vocal critic of Beijing’s anti-democracy crackdown, was due to testify at the US senate committee on foreign relations about the latest curbs on democracy. He recently told Sky News: “I really do hope that every bit of action that I’m taking now can help and can pave the way for me for my way back to Hong Kong.”

Biden’s response

In August 2019, Joe Biden, who was preparing to stand in the Democratic presidential primaries, delivered a strong message of support to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters. The United States, he said in a tweet, should stand with the protesters and China must “live up to its promises to the people of Hong Kong”.

But Biden’s election last year worried some of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, many of whom had welcomed Donald Trump’s tough approach towards Beijing.

However, unlike Trump, Biden has promised to emphasise the need for China to respect human rights and has also committed to work with international partners to push back against China’s growing influence and aggression.

Last month, during his first phone call as president with Xi Jinping, Biden expressed concern about China’s conduct in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang.

On Wednesday, the White House confirmed that Biden would hold a meeting with the leaders of India, Japan and Australia – the first leaders-level meeting of the “Quad”, an alliance of democracies that formed in 2007. The grouping has developed in status in recent years as concerns about China’s regional ambitions have increased.

The leaders’ meeting, to be held on Saturday, local time, will be one of Biden’s first significant international engagements as president. It was expected to focus on the rollout of vaccines across the region, as well as climate change and economic co-operation.

On Wednesday, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the meeting marked a “historic moment” for the region. He did not mention China but said the Quad would boost security and stability and ensure that people in Australia can “live the lives in the way that they wish to in a liberal democracy”.

“And it sends a very strong message to the region about our support for a sovereign, independent Indo-Pacific,” he said.

Xi has made it clear he views affairs in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang as domestic Chinese concerns and will reject any American interference. “The US should respect China’s core interests and act with caution,” Xi told Biden in their phone call, according to Chinese state television.

The future

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, has insisted the recent changes in Hong Kong are designed to provide long-term stability and deliver a “brighter future”.

“Hong Kong’s transition from chaos to governance is fully in the interests of all parties,” he said last weekend.

But the moves have led to growing concerns about Hong Kong’s future as an autonomous territory and an outward-looking global financial and trading hub.

In 2020, the national security law prompted Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, to announce a new visa scheme that will allow up to 5.4 million Hong Kongers who are eligible for British National Overseas status to enter Britain for five years and to eventually apply for citizenship. The British government estimates 300,000 people will relocate during the next five years.

Australia has also offered residency to a range of visa holders from Hong Kong.

On Monday, Ted Hui, a high-profile pro-democracy Hong Kong legislator who fled to Europe last year, arrived in Australia after being granted an exemption from Covid-19 travel rules by the Australian government.

Hui, who faces national security and money-laundering charges in Hong Kong, has been calling for stronger international action against China’s curbs on its critics. He told The Sydney Morning Herald that the new electoral laws were a “huge step backward” that will prevent pro-democratic politicians from running in public elections. “It is a further step to execute and silence dissent,” Hui said. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 13, 2021 as "China amps up crackdown on Hong Kong democracy".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.