If you believe the Chinese government, Benny Tai is a mastermind and the principal offender, guilty of conspiring to subvert Chinese state power. He had a rebellious history dating back to the 2013 Occupy Central protests. This time, Tai outlined a highly subversive plan in a manifesto titled “Ten Steps to Mutual Destruction.” The manifesto called for pro-democracy councilors in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) to blackmail the city government, threatening China’s unquestionable authority in Hong Kong. His first step in executing this evil plot was orchestrating pro-democratic primary elections in July 2020 with his accomplice, the activist group “Power for Democracy.” All candidates participating in the primary elections were members of this subversive gang. All polling centers and media groups that supported the primaries were witnesses of the crime, who could be arrested later. The 600,000 voters in the primaries? They could be investigated as accessories to the crime if there was evidence of subversive actions.
This is the narrative behind the recent mass arrest of over 50 pro-democracy figures, based on press conferences given by Hong Kong police and national security agencies and numerous articles published by pro-Beijing media. The narrative follows the typical Chinese state logic, which centers on a presumption of guilt, denies the free will of people, and tends to create the narrative of a “criminal organization” (usually backed by foreign powers), with the ultimate goal to explain away a simple truth: People are dissatisfied with an incompetent government.
A self-justified story like this may suit China’s internal propaganda but is far detached from reality if you closely examine the happenings surrounding the primary elections.
The Conspiracy: From Manifesto to the Primary Elections
Benny Tai’s manifesto, published in April 2020, references “mutual destruction,” a term popularized by protesters in 2019 that describes a brinkmanship strategy to force the Hong Kong and Beijing governments to restore autonomy and grant democracy to the city. Despite its radical title, the manifesto is a continuation of the moderate, “within-the-system” front of the movement that gained steam in 2019. It proposes a step-by-step strategy, beginning with winning a majority of the LegCo in the September 2020 election (a majority would require at least 35 of the legislature’s 70 seats; thus it was also known as the “35+” plan). The ultimate goal would be for a pro-democratic LegCo to block the budget twice to force Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to resign and pressure the government to implement the “Five Demands” of the 2019 protests, which included a plea for universal suffrage to elect Hong Kong’s leader and lawmakers.
Learning from the experience of vote splitting in previous elections, legal scholar and former law professor Benny Tai and others held city-wide primary elections within the pro-democracy camp in July 2020, with over 600,000 voters having cast a vote. To put this into context, the primaries happened against the backdrop of a newly enforced National Security Law in Hong Kong.
However, two weeks later, Beijing postponed the official elections until September 2021, citing public health risks posed by the pandemic. In January 2021, Hong Kong’s National Security Department arrested organizers and candidates in the primaries, charging them with conspiracy to commit subversion.
The “Subversive Gang”
It might have suited Beijing’s purpose to label all who were involved in Tai’s plan as a singular, powerful group of extremists. In reality, the candidates and legislators came from a wide range of the political spectrum, and they endorsed Tai’s plans to different degrees.
The first group of these individuals is the most moderate, including middle-of-the-road politicians who would at times publicly disapprove of Beijing’s agenda, including legislating the National Security Law. Although they do not openly back the “35+ plan,” these politicians generally support the “Five Demands” – the same objective as the manifesto. In fact, each one of the “Five Demands” had previously found advocates among pro-Beijing councilors before the National Security Law took effect.
The second group is also moderate, but it requires a deeper dive into Hong Kong’s election mechanisms to understand its positions. The group is made up of candidates running through a mechanism called “functional constituencies,” which (before this year’s overhaul of the entire electoral system) would elect half of the LegCo seats to represent different specific social and economic sectors. The mechanism elects through limited suffrage and traditionally favors pro-establishment candidates. Thus, it is viewed as an unjust and broken system by many pan-democrats – running in functional constituencies at all is an unpopular political move. As a result, the camp does not fare well and remains a minority in LegCo, despite a two-decades-long history of winning 60 percent of popular votes in previous elections. This was where I was personally involved as a political science scholar: Last year, I along with others openly encouraged public participation in the functional constituencies to truly represent the electorate’s pro-democratic leaning.
Since my open call, I met with many functional constituency candidates who supported the 35+ campaign. Many were political outsiders, but they shared the same goal to defeat the pro-establishment candidates in their sectors. Yet they definitely fell short of the description of “accomplice in subversion”: many sought changes within the existing system, but did not agree to veto the government budget because of their older and more conservative voter base. Operating under one big pro-democracy banner was never their preference; many prioritized their voters’ sector-specific demands.
In other words, despite Beijing’s best efforts to characterize all offenders as radicals aiming to bring down the government, there had never been a well-defined club of “35+” loyalists as individuals disagreed on future plans following the LegCo elections. So how was it that Beijing could accuse all candidates as part of a unified conspiracy?
It was true that a third group, candidates running for the remaining LegCo seats in the “geographic constituencies,” participated in the primaries and supported vetoing the budget. Many signed a declaration promising to use LegCo powers to achieve the “Five Demands” but, bear in mind, none of them fully agreed with Tai’s 10-step proposal. Besides, how would a conditional veto – part of a legislator’s power – constitute subversion, especially when contingent upon demands that many pro-establishment councilors were sympathetic with?
Taking another step back, would vetoing the budget really shut down the government and “threaten national security,” as Beijing claims? According to article 51 of the Basic Law, if the budget was rejected, the chief executive could still have applied for funds on account, and even approved the said funds if the Legislative Council was to be dissolved. Under no circumstances would the Hong Kong government have been paralyzed like we have seen in the United States during budget impasses. The very fact that the government had the means to disqualify any elected officials as it sees fit shows that Tai’s political manifesto was just a scapegoat and nothing more.
Under the assumptions of Common Law or even basic logical reasoning, no candidates should have been arrested. But this mass prosecution (and others such as Martin Lee’s and Andy Li’s cases) shows that the Chinese state logic, aiming to take control of legislative and law enforcement powers, defies common sense in a civil society. The prosecuted are pillars of our society, a fact even pro-establishment figures would not deny. Who would dare utter a word in protest, though? In a time reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, anyone could become the next target of prosecution as the red line shifts to meet “national needs.”