In Hong Kong, an ongoing crackdown on dissent is reaching new heights with mass subversion charges, new loyalty oaths, and large-scale plans to reform the city’s electoral system.
On March 1, hundreds of protesters gathered at a court to support 47 pro-democracy activists who were charged with “conspiracy to commit subversion” under the national security law. Most wore black, the color of choice during the 2019 protests, and chanted slogans including the banned phrases: “liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” and “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”
Those charged were among 55 who were arrested in a massive dawn raid last month – and later released on bail – for organizing and participating in an unofficial primary vote for the city’s now-postponed Legislative Council elections. The poll, which drew over 600,000 voters, was accused of being part of a plan to paralyze the government through gaining a majority in the legislature.
If convicted, those charged could be sentenced to life imprisonment. Legal scholar and vote organizer Benny Tai, prominent activist Joshua Wong, Democratic Party Chairman Wu Chi-wai, Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung, former lawmakers Claudia Mo and “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, as well as district councillors Tiffany Yuen and Fergus Leung were among those charged.
The move marks a sharp escalation in the usage of the national security law, which has given authorities widespread control over the city by broadly criminalizing secession, subversion, and other forms of dissent. While hundreds have been arrested on suspicion of violating the law since it was imposed last summer, few had been formally charged and taken to court.
The mass charges came just days after authorities introduced a new oath-taking law for public officials. In addition to lawmakers and civil servants, district councillors will now also be required to pledge loyalty to the local government and Beijing’s authority over the territory. Those who violate the law will be disqualified from office and banned from running in elections for five years, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang declared on Tuesday.
District councillors serve on the local councils for each of Hong Kong’s 18 districts. While they have relatively little power and primarily deal with local affairs like transportation or the management of public facilities, 117 of the 452 councillors have traditionally held seats on a committee that votes for the city’s top leader.
Yet councillors may not hold that power much longer. Chinese lawmakers are expected to vote on proposed changes to the committee at an annual legislative session in March, the Wall Street Journal reported last week.
The changes include plans to reduce or eliminate the 117 seats assigned to councillors, replacing them with members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference – the nation’s top political advisory body – who hold Hong Kong residency.
In 2019, democrats won a landslide victory in the district council elections and gained control of all but one of the districts. The win came as a shock to the Beijing, and critics later blamed pro-democracy councillors for exacerbating local tensions and failing to hold allegiance to the government. Last year, four district councillors were banned from running for the legislative council.
These developments also come amid high-level discussions over a broader overhaul of Hong Kong’s political system – reforms that pro-democracy activists say spell the end of the city’s opposition.
In a speech on February 22, Hong Kong’s sole delegate to China’s top legislative body declared the city must only be governed by “patriots” and warned of the risk of “radical separatists” gaining power through elections.
During a panel discussion with experts and officials from Beijing, Hong Kong, and Macao, Xia Baolong, director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council, outlined criteria for what makes a “true patriot,” including love for the Chinese Communist Party. Xia also called for “prompt efforts” to improve local systems and “plug loopholes.”
Following Xia’s remarks, pro-Beijing politician Rita Fan also proposed sweeping changes to the legislature and district councils to ensure that only “patriots” serve as lawmakers and members of the chief executive election committee.
At a gathering with top Beijing officials on February 28, Fan suggested lawmakers should receive nominations from the election committee before running for office. Echoing calls from other pro-Beijing figures, she also supported the plans to replace district councillors on the committee with delegates to China’s top advisory body, in addition to other changes.
The recent changes have already had a chilling effect. Power for Democracy, an opposition activist group formed in 2002 that also coordinated last year’s unofficial primaries, announced on February 27 that it would disband and cease operations.
“In the future, we must continue to serve the Hong Kong community through different means under the Basic Law, National Security Law and ‘One Country, Two Systems’ framework, and obey the law and maintain Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity,” said convenor Andrew Chiu, who was also charged with conspiring to commit subversion, in a Facebook post.