Hong Kong has had its first taste of the remodeled electoral system that China designed for the city. As an exercise in competitive politics, Sunday’s vote had all the suspense and spontaneity of a Soviet military parade, though with fewer people. All the same, Beijing has reason to be satisfied with the outcome.
The ballot was to fill about a quarter of the seats on the so-called Election Committee that will choose the city’s next chief executive and appoint a chunk of the legislature. About 4,900 voters were eligible to take part.
Beijing shrank the electorate by about 97% due to the inconvenient tendency of Hong Kong people to vote for pro-democracy candidates. More than three-quarters of the seats open to election were filled uncontested after the number of nominations matched the number of places available, a sign that the important decisions had already been made behind closed doors.
China calls this improving the electoral system. That word was written into the legislation for the avoidance of doubt: The National People’s Congress passed the “Decision on Improving the Electoral System of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region” in March, and inserted it into the city’s de facto constitution, the Basic Law.
For the government, the poll was an opportunity to showcase how Beijing’s intervention had moved Hong Kong beyond the unrest of 2019 and restored a stable, functioning polity. In fact, it did more to highlight the contradictions between the official version of events and observable reality since China imposed a national security law on the former British colony in mid-2020.
Authorities made efforts to treat the vote as if it were a genuine political contest. There was the over-the-top police presence: The force announced plans to deploy as many as 6,000 officers, more than the total number of electors. Property tycoons such as CK group’s Victor Li and Adam Kwok of Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd. were ordered on to the streets to canvas, according to the South China Morning Post.
That was far from necessary for such an uncompetitive poll, though it will have helped to create the impression that something was at stake in the absence of a political opposition. Absurdly, Chief Executive Carrie Lam paid tribute to the high turnout rate on Sunday night — for a ballot from which more than 99.9% of Hong Kong’s population was excluded.
In the telling of mainland Chinese and Hong Kong officials, the national security law is a piece of routine housekeeping that has weeded out a group of anti-China troublemakers backed by malicious foreign actors. Freed from this influence, Hong Kong’s people have realized the error of their ways and come to welcome the security law and Beijing’s insistence that only “patriots” should be allowed to partake in the city’s political life.
It’s a stretch to make this narrative stick. For one thing, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp has consistently drawn the support of a majority of voters in open elections over decades. There is no credible evidence that this support has waned; opposition voices have just been silenced. Second, many of those targeted are far from the petrol-bomb-throwing radicals implied by Chinese state media rhetoric. They are mild-mannered and respectable lawyers, accountants, doctors and the like who have worked within the constitutional structure and sought only the autonomy and greater democracy promised to Hong Kong in the Basic Law.
It cannot escape the attention of the city’s people that the officials who now decry these politicians as subversive and secessionist previously engaged with them for years or decades in relative civility. The same goes for the civil society organizations that the authorities are now erasing from the city’s life, including the Civil Human Rights Front and the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, organizer of the annual Tiananmen vigil. Both staged peaceful and orderly protests that were approved by police for decades without incident.
Even the insistence on “patriots” employs some semantic legerdemain. This requirement draws its authority from late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who said that patriots must form the main body of Hong Kong’s administrators. But Deng had an expansive definition, saying patriots included anyone “who respects the Chinese nation, sincerely supports the motherland’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong and wishes not to impair Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.” And that’s how it was treated in practice, for more than two decades after the 1997 handover that returned the city to China. As in so many other areas, the past is now being rewritten.
Sunday’s vote can’t be ignored, given the power that the Election Committee wields. An “election” devoid of genuine debate or competition is a momentous sign of the lack of genuine democracy Hong Kong can expect in future. It is also, from another perspective, meaningless.
The Election Committee was never very democratic to begin with, though the electorate had expanded since 1997 in line with the Basic Law’s vague aspirations. The electoral structure was always designed to enable Beijing to control the process, which it did most recently by anointing Lam — Hong Kong’s most unpopular chief executive ever — in 2017 over the Hong Kong public’s clear favorite, John Tsang. Beijing was always in control; that control has simply become tighter.
Matthew Brooker is a columnist and editor with Bloomberg Opinion.
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