While continuing to insist that Hong Kong is an internal Chinese affair in which foreigners should not interfere, the Chinese government is using the recent legislative elections in the former British colony to put it front and center in Beijing’s worsening relationship with the West.
Even before the United States convened The Summit for Democracy on Dec. 9-10, Beijing issued a white paper, “China: Democracy That Works,” extolling its own system and claiming that the Chinese Communist Party had developed a “whole-process people’s democracy,” a term first used by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2019.
The paper said China, which was not invited to the summit, did not duplicate Western models of democracy “but created its own.”
The Hong Kong elections, held Dec. 19, were condemned by the West, with the Group of Seven, the European Union and the Five Eyes countries — the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — issuing statements that voiced “grave concern over the erosion of democratic elements.”
Held under a new, Beijing-designed system, all candidates were vetted to ensure that only those deemed to be “patriots” would be elected.
Chinese officials up to and including President Xi hailed the election’s outcome, which saw pro-establishment candidates win 89 of 90 seats. The 30.2% turnout was a record low — turnout was 58.3% the last time, in 2016. Pan-democrats had historically won a majority of votes and this time, it seems, many of their supporters, particularly those from the middle class, refrained from voting.
The day after the elections, China issued another white paper, “Hong Kong Democratic Progress Under the Framework of One Country, Two Systems.” This paper linked the Hong Kong elections to “whole-process people’s democracy” in the mainland and said that the groundwork had now been laid “for developing democracy in Hong Kong under the framework of One Country, Two Systems.”
Its message was meant for the international community. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Commissioner in Hong Kong, Liu Guangyuan, briefed diplomats and foreign chambers of commerce, assuring them that both the Communist Party and the Chinese government were certain of “the long-term success of both the capitalist system in Hong Kong and a form of democracy suited to its realities.” China appears to be using the Hong Kong democracy issue to hit back at its critics. Commissioner Liu emphasized that there was no “one size fits all” path to democracy nor a “single, superior model.”
Having defined all of China as a democracy, it naturally follows that whatever system is eventually imposed on the region will also be called a democracy, one with Hong Kong characteristics.
The new electoral system designed by Beijing plus the national security law imposed on Hong Kong on June 30, 2020 are two key pieces of legislation that have been used by the Hong Kong authorities to regain control and to crack down on opposition figures and institutions after the turmoil of 2019, when mass protests often turned into riots.
The Hong Kong government had tried hard to persuade people to vote, going so far as to make public transport free on election day. That day, amusement parks were packed but not polling stations.
Now, China’s supporters are shrugging off the low turnout and saying that what really matters is the performance of the new, opposition-free legislature.
But that’s where the problem lies. The government cites the law every time it is accused of violating people’s rights. A legislature willing to give the government a free pass is a threat to liberty.
After the police raided the Stand News media outlet Dec. 29, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said “nobody should associate law enforcement actions by the police department with the freedom of the press.”
Citing the American secretary of state, Antony Blinken, she agreed that “journalism is not sedition” but added: “Seditious acts and activities and inciting other people through public acts and activities could not be condoned under the guise of news reporting.”
The danger of a legislature with no opposition voices is that the government is now free to pass any law that it pleases.
This was reflected in Lam’s attitude in an interview last July. Radio host Hugh Chiverton mentioned an off-the-record August 2019 talk in which she agreed that she had caused “unforgivable havoc.” The talk was leaked. Lam said in the interview that the media should not have reported on this private event.
“There’s no law against it,” Chiverton said.
“Perhaps a law needs to be introduced,” was her swift rejoinder.
Frank Ching is a U.S. journalist based in Hong Kong who frequently writes on China-related issues.
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