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The passage of Hong Kong’s national security law has marked the end of the city as we once knew it. However, Beijing is not seeking to turn Hong Kong into another Chinese city; there is little incentive for it to do so. Instead, China’s leaders might be performing a “grand experiment” of transforming Hong Kong’s political ecosystem based on the model of Putin’s Russia.

As laid out in William Dobson’s “The Dictator’s Learning Curve,” dictators have realized that the most effective form of governance in the modern era is not an iron fist, but a birdcage with limited freedom. Such a system uses democratic disguises to claim legitimacy, yet the overriding premise is to keep the regime in power.

The key features of the Russian electoral authoritarian system (or so-called sovereign democracy) illustrate this “birdcage democracy” and, when juxtaposed against recent developments in Hong Kong, shed light on how the city is seeing the end of fair elections.

Limiting competition with legal technicalities

In the early days of post-Soviet Russia, parties faced real competition in parliamentary elections. The opposition Communist Party of the Russian Federation won a majority in the Duma elections in the 1990s and effectively checked the power of the Yeltsin-led government. However, since Vladimir Putin came to power, he has made several legal changes that have limited the number of political parties and barred parliamentary candidates from running through the use of various legal technicalities, ultimately restricting the election to only Kremlin-backed candidates.

Stage-managing elections

In each election, several parties are “allowed” to run alongside United Russia, the Putin-Medvedev clan of elites, which has accumulated vast political resources from its long time in power. The other parties have clearly defined roles in the script.

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led by its far-right, ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, advocates for outrageous policies like “taking back Alaska.” The LDP thus gives a “moderate” appearance to Putin’s government.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the early successor to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, has organizing and mobilizing powers. Thus, it has been Putin’s target for reform or weakening in order to turn it into a perpetual opposition.

The Just Russia Party, a quasi-opposition left-wing party, serves to split votes with the Communist Party and, hence, to keep the left from power. Characterized as the Kremlin’s “pocket opposition,” the party strongly criticizes United Russia’s local cadres and chants for democracy and freedom during elections, but refrains from challenging United Russia’s dominance.

As opposed to a one-party dictatorship, a more subtle form of control is to allow these pocket opposition parties, which respect the Kremlin’s near-monopoly and red lines, to run in elections. These parties provide checks and balances on low-level cadres, avoiding the fossilization and corruption commonly seen under one-party domination. During periods of high public discontent, they can channel support away from the radical opposition (which stands no chance of winning and affecting changes) and attract protest votes in elections. As a bonus, when the Kremlin needs foreign support to fend off international sanctions, the pocket opposition figures can go to the international arena and be spokespersons purporting to showcase Russia’s voice of democracy and freedom.

Marginalizing true opposition forces and harnessing their free speech

Despite the existence of different political parties and democratic elections, Putin’s regime nevertheless uses an iron fist against any genuine opposition. Russia’s anti-terrorism law authorizes the extrajudicial executions of Kremlin-defined terrorists and extremists around the world. Taking refuge in overseas countries, radical opposition figures remain marginalized. Putin and media propaganda paints them as “foreign agents” or “lackeys of Western imperialism,” further deterring their supporters from openly associating with them.

The remaining domestic opposition leaders face various forms of oppression, such as threats of fatal “accidents” and being banned from elections and any meaningful political power. However, they still have a voice: criticism of Putin is commonplace on the Russian internet, a marked difference from mainland China and other authoritarian regimes. This itself is a clever maneuver by Putin. The apparent free speech of the opposition, which has no access to real power, legitimizes the regime. Besides, online criticisms spill over to the “pocket opposition” parties as well, stirring up internal conflicts among the forces outside the ruling party.

Hong Kong’s path toward electoral authoritarianism

If Hong Kong’s governance were to be made identical to the mainland’s, the common enemy for pro-democratic Hong Kongers would be clear-cut. This could easily unite the nonestablishment camp, as we saw in the 2019 anti-extradition movement. This would be akin to when communist regimes collapsed across Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War: a broad coalition of opposition parties, including pro-Western liberals, national separatists, religious conservatives, trade unions, and even doctrinaire communists formed under the same banner to oppose a common adversary.

However, Hong Kong seems to be moving in a different direction. The Hong Kong government’s manipulation of the electoral system has breached the last line of defense for the city’s civil society. Over the last year, the regime has disqualified candidates from elections and removed incumbents from public office on legal and bureaucratic technicalities. The establishment camp, backed by vast resources, has branched out into radical and ostensibly “open-minded” groups, getting into position for future staged elections. Meanwhile the opposition parties, which have no hope of securing a political majority, are facing a tough decision between turning into the pocket opposition, as seen in Russia, or quitting the system altogether. Similar decisions have embroiled the opposition camp in controversies: In fights for limited resources and anti-establishment support, former allies have been pitted against each other, widening differences that were once put aside.

The national security law limits the advocacy of outspoken local voices, who now can hardly find moral high ground to consolidate support without risking arrest. On the other hand, those exiled overseas face the prospect of being marginalized without long-term support. Beijing, emboldened by the national security law’s universal jurisdiction, would likely revert to their usual method for dealing with dissidents abroad.

For Hong Kong people who still believe in democracy, all the options on the table seem to provide little more than the illusion of choice; the resulting powerlessness is perhaps the ultimate goal of birdcage democracy.

If this pilot experiment succeeds in Hong Kong, this model could be replicated in other parts of China. Left-leaning leaders in democracies might be fooled into announcing the country’s successful democratization without realizing the distorted definition of democratic and liberal values. It would be the greatest irony if Hong Kong ceases to be a bridgehead for the West to import universal values into China and instead becomes a Chinese testing ground before the worldwide export of the “Chinese Model.”

Dr. Simon Shen is the Founding Chairman of GLOs (Glocal Learning Offices), an international relations start-up company. He also serves as an adjunct associate professor and associate director of the Master of Global Political Economy Programme of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a visiting scholar of National Sun Yat-sen University of Taiwan. The author acknowledges Aaron B. Wong, Ah Gil and Chris Wong for their assistance in this piece. ©2020 – The Diplomat.

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