Last year, millions of protesters marching in Hong Kong to defend the city’s freedom captivated the world. Protesters in the semi-autonomous city had every intention to keep the movement alive, but as the coronavirus pandemic started spreading early this year, Hong Kong’s street protests quieted down while people sheltered at home. Instead, pro-democracy citizens focused their attention on patronizing “yellow” businesses that supported the protests last year and organizing to distribute pandemic supplies to local communities.
While the rest of the world is focused on controlling the pandemic, the pro-Beijing camp in the Hong Kong government, together with the Chinese Communist Party, saw this as an opportunity to revamp the political balance in Hong Kong. Last month, the China Liaison Office in Hong Kong effectively declared that it was no longer bound by the “one country, two systems” principle that guaranteed Hong Kong’s autonomy by interpreting that the office was not limited by Article 22 of the Hong Kong Basic Law, clearing the way for the CCP to directly interfere in Hong Kong’s internal affairs. The Hong Kong government backed this interpretation with its own press release. Immediately after, 15 prominent pro-democracy activists and politicians were arrested. Two of them were Martin Lee and Margaret Ng, well-respected veteran politicians who have never been arrested before.
In November, the pro-democracy camp saw sweeping success for their candidates in the District Council elections. These elections served as a referendum, and the results showed that the vast majority of Hong Kong’s citizens are in favor of democracy and against interference from Beijing. Although the District Council elections were a decisive defeat for the pro-Beijing camp, the Hong Kong Legislative Council is still ruled by a majority of pro-Beijing lawmakers, and this is where the work of putting forward and approving legislation must happen.
Pro-Beijing lawmakers, who were taking a passive approach in the Legislative Council since having their morale beat, now appear to have a fire lit beneath them as Beijing scrambles to reinforce their dominance in Hong Kong.
The powerful Legislative Council House Committee, an important legislative council subcommittee that sets the agenda for the legislature, was for years led by pro-Beijing lawmaker Starry Lee, whose term expired last October. Pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok was appointed as deputy chair to lead the elections for a new chair. In accordance with procedure, the election of a new chair must precede substantive legislative discussion at House Committee meetings.
Since then, no fewer than 17 attempts at re-electing Lee as chair have failed, and the CCP is now pressuring the pro-Beijing contingency of lawmakers, who hold a majority of seats, to take more drastic actions and hand Lee the chair position. Many in Hong Kong predicted that these lawmakers would soon search for excuses to disqualify Kwok in order to regain control of the committee’s agenda.
On May 7, the House Committee election saga reached a boiling point when former House Committee chair Starry Lee forcibly declared herself the legitimate chair citing external legal opinion, despite the fact that the LegCo’s own lawyers from both sides of the debate failed to find fault in Kwok holding the deputy chair position. A physical scuffle broke out, a protest ensued, and soon a lawmaker was being wheeled out on a stretcher.
According to Nathan Law, the founding chair of pro-democracy group activist group Demosisto, this all amounts to “an act by Beijing to eliminate obstacles and ensure the CCP’s complete control.” Law predicted that “the pro-democracy camp would be expelled from LegCo, leaving the pro-Beijing camp to quickly pass their agenda. This is a portrayal of the eventual ‘Hong Kong National People’s Congress.’”
These events spell disaster for Hong Kong’s already fragile legal and political system. With the pro-Beijing camp controlling the agenda of LegCo, the CCP will push for the passage of multiple bills that further erode the already failing “one country, two systems” policy.
The first of these could be a “national anthem” bill that criminalizes insulting the Chinese national anthem. The next one would likely be the implementation of Article 23, a bill that has long haunted the Hong Kong people as it criminalizes the ill-defined “treason, secession, sedition, [and] subversion.” If passed, the Hong Kong government, taking orders from the CCP, would be able to easily imprison opposition voices. A rise in the persecution of activists is expected if the bill does pass.
The Hong Kong pro-democracy movement has been immensely successful, in part because the international community was moved by the images of huge crowds marching for their freedom. Using the pandemic as cover, the CCP is taking advantage of the fact that street protests are no longer possible and is now executing its vision of completely stripping Hong Kong of its remaining freedoms. From here on, we can expect to see a rapid decline in the city’s political institutions unless the global community can reinvest itself in Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy.
Joy Park is the legal counsel for Asia at the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) and leads HRF’s Hong Kong Desk project.