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As dozens of pro-China lawmakers in Hong Kong’s legislature stood up in May to heap praise on a bill giving Beijing an effective veto over candidates in the city’s elections, only one legislator condemned the move.

"Cronyism will be the primary prerequisite for this election,” said Cheng Chung-tai, by then the legislature’s sole directly elected opposition member, after the others had either resigned or been removed. "Corruption is bound to happen,” he told the assembly at the time.

By late August, Cheng had been stripped of his seat by the committee he had criticized, which ruled that he didn’t "genuinely uphold” the city’s charter. Last week, he announced that his political party Civic Passion was dissolving.

"Facing the reality that there is no way forward in politics, the party solemnly announces to disband with immediate effect,” he wrote on Facebook. Cheng didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

The removal of Cheng from Hong Kong’s legislature marks a new milestone in the undoing of the closest thing China has had to an open election system. Over the past 10 months, almost 300 elected legislators and district councilors from pro-democracy groups have resigned or been removed from office as Beijing asserted broad new national security powers to jail opposition leaders and remake politics in the former British colony.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong police arrested four members of the group that had traditionally organized the annual vigil for the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown after they refused to cooperate with a national security probe.

With their critics out, President Xi Jinping’s chosen representatives in Hong Kong are building a system that will make it much riskier for the opposition to return. On Friday, Hong Kong will hold a swearing-in ceremony for district councilors that will subject oath-takers to the threat of prosecution and, potentially, demands to repay their office expenses if they make a "false” pledge or are otherwise deemed to violate it. Next week, the city will begin filling an overhauled committee that will select Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s successor in March, with only vetted "patriots” as electors.

"It’s obvious that those who were popularly mandated persons or parties are no longer able to enter the system,” said Eric Lai, a Hong Kong law fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law. "The political system in Hong Kong will become much more closed, exclusive, only in favor of those loyal to the government. And it seems some key elements of good governance or meritocracy by elections will be fading, which is not good for the economic and financial status of Hong Kong.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a ceremony in 2019.  | REUTERS
Chinese President Xi Jinping attends a ceremony in 2019. | REUTERS

For her own part, Lam has insisted that Hong Kong’s electoral changes were "not to screen out the opposition,” arguing that the national security law and other measures have restored stability to the Asian financial hub after massive and sometimes violent street protests in 2019. Still, at a news conference Tuesday in which Lam announced the oath-taking ceremony for the district councilors, officials repeatedly emphasized the risk of removal and criminal investigation for violators.

"If you have a clear conscience, then you don’t have to look over your shoulders,” Caspar Tsui, Lam’s secretary for home affairs, told reporters. "But I’d like to say that if anyone suspected of breaking the law, if necessary, we will refer the case to law enforcement agencies.”

A Hong Kong government representative referred a request for further comment to Chief Secretary John Lee’s remarks from Aug. 26, in which he said that the next election would be conducted under a "broadly representative system” free from corruption.

China has pressed ahead with the election overhaul despite international condemnation. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called the effort a "direct attack on autonomy promised to people in Hong Kong under the Sino-British Joint Declaration” that paved the way for the city’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.

The oaths and the purges that have proceeded them represent the culmination of a campaign by Beijing to roll back a series of election setbacks, especially the District Council vote almost two years ago. With it, pro-democracy groups not only demonstrated their broad public support by winning 85% of available seats, they shook Beijing’s confidence that it could guarantee loyalist control of the city government.

Riding the momentum of massive street protests earlier that year, almost 3 million people voted in the 2019 election. The strong showing secured them scores more seats in the Election Committee to select Lam’s successor, and, moreover, suggested that the opposition was on track to win an unprecedented majority on the Legislative Council in 2020.

The Legislative Council in Hong Kong in April | REUTERS
The Legislative Council in Hong Kong in April | REUTERS

Beijing had resisted efforts to establish democracy in Hong Kong decades before the handover, with then-Premier Zhou Enlai lobbying the British against democratic reforms in the 1950s. Chinese officials protested the then-Governor Chris Patten’s efforts to expand elected seats in the Legislative Council in the 1990s, even as they agreed to include a pledge to establish "universal suffrage” in the city’s charter.

The 2019 defeat was the "last straw” for China’s trust in the ability of local pro-Beijing elites to predict and manage local politics, according to a Western diplomat based in Hong Kong. And the stakes were rising: the opposition had come up with a plan to use a majority on the Legislative Council to vote down Lam’s budget and trigger her resignation — a power granted to the legislature in the city’s Basic Law.

"The landslide victory of the district councils in 2019 was a warning to the Chinese Communist Party that the same thing would happen in the Legislative Council,” said To Ka-lun, a former district councilor who has resigned and moved to the U.K. "The first point was to the stop the Legislative Council election.”

The response from Beijing was swift. Weeks after the November 2019 election, China replaced two of its most senior officials overseeing the city. The new officials, Hong Kong & Macau Affairs Office chief Xia Baolong and Liaison Office Director Luo Huining, soon signaled a more hands-on role, issuing statements criticizing opposition figures and demanding action to curb their activities.

The security law handed down by China’s top legislative body in June 2020 was just the start. Weeks later, authorities suspended the Legislative Council election slated for September for more than a year.

"What the national security law and accompanying measures mean is that Beijing has zero tolerance for any dissent in Hong Kong,” said Victoria Hui, a University of Noter Dame associate political science professor specializing in Hong Kong politics. "In Beijing’s eyes, the district council itself has to be stifled, and the Legislative Council and chief executive elections could not be opened up.”

Former pro-democracy lawmakers Ted Hui Chi-fung, Raymond Chan Chi-chuen and Eddie Chu Hoi-dick appear outside Hong Kong's West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts.  | REUTERS
Former pro-democracy lawmakers Ted Hui Chi-fung, Raymond Chan Chi-chuen and Eddie Chu Hoi-dick appear outside Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts. | REUTERS

Then came the purges. In November, the government disqualified four pro-democracy lawmakers who had been previously barred from seeking re-election. In protest, 15 other opposition legislators resigned en masse, leaving only Cheng left on that side of the chamber.

Later, dozens of activists who had participated in a July 2020 primary to choose candidates for the campaign to force Lam’s resignation were arrested under the security law. The government accused the defendants of conspiring to "paralyze the government and seriously interfere in, disrupt and undermine the performance of government duties and functions.”

With legislative elections on hold, Beijing passed the election overhaul. The new rules removed district councilors from the Election Committee and stuffed it with hundreds more unelected loyalists. The body was bestowed powers to vet candidates for patriotism and send candidates to the legislature. The number of directly elected legislative seats was slashed to 20 from 35.

To is among some 260 district councilors who have resigned ahead of the loyalty pledge. He said he left Hong Kong because he feared arrest over participating in the primary.

For To, that long-running debate over democratic reform in Hong Kong has been settled. Cheng’s removal from the Legislative Council underscores the futility of participating in a system where politicians are vetted for loyalty to China.

"Under the circumstances, I think we — and by we, I mean the pan-democrats — should not participate in the current political arena in Hong Kong,” To said. "If the process isn’t fair, the laws won’t be fair.”

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