It was no surprise when Hong Kong’s legislature passed the Beijing-led “election reform” bill, an “overhaul to improve the city’s electoral system” per official accounts.
This “overhaul” will create a candidate qualification review committee that allows only “patriots” to run for the city’s Legislative Council (LegCo), and decrease the seats elected through universal suffrage from 50 percent to 22 percent of LegCo’s total seats. The general elections in the past – despite being heavily rigged against the popular pro-democracy camp – still allowed a chance for the opposition to control the legislature. But these “improvements” cement Beijing’s control of the legislature, regardless of popular will.
Some critics have described this shakeup as “a regression” that has “reduced democratic representation.” But this mistakenly implies that Hong Kong is still operating under the same system. Hong Kong as we know it has ceased to exist: Last year’s imposition of the National Security Law has deprived the city of its autonomy. The legislature is next in line to be assimilated into the mainland Chinese system, as its election process is practically becoming a form of staff appointment by the regime. Commentaries oblivious to these fundamental changes fall into the trap of Beijing’s wider agenda: to gut the city’s sociopolitical systems while maintaining a business-as-usual storefront to the international community, in order to exploit the financial center’s former reputation.
These sociopolitical surgeries, which swap out the essence of established concepts or institutions but keep their names, may sound cumbersome or improbable. However, they have been performed multiple times in the People’s Republic of China itself, and those historical examples foreshadow the development of Hong Kong’s general elections.
Conceptual “Body Swaps” in China
Hollowing out well-accepted entities is a useful tool of regime propaganda. The rationale is well laid out in Austrian economist F.A. Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom”:
The most effective way of making people accept the validity of the values they are to serve is to persuade them that they are really the same as those they have always held, but which were not properly understood or recognized before. … And the most efficient technique to this end is to use the old words but change their meaning.
For starters, Western concepts are frequently invoked – but often distorted in their interpretations – by the Chinese government. Democracy is re-interpreted as a “people’s democratic dictatorship.” This form of dictatorship, enshrined in the Chinese Constitution, specifies that the communist state assumes the role of representing the people and is entitled to use state power against opposition to preserve the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Another example is “rule of law,” which is read as “rule by law” – the law as a tool to advance regime ends, rather than a great equalizer for ruler and ruled alike.
This kind of sociopolitical hollowing out has also transformed the Chinese party system after decades of work. Per official accounts, China is not run by a one-party system, but “multiparty cooperation and political consultation under the leadership of the Communist Party of China.” Eight legally permitted parties bring voices from society to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a political advisory body to the Chinese government. These parties – when you trace their histories – are the nominal heirs to parties that represented a broad spectrum of society in the Republican Era and the early days of the PRC. For example, the Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang was the progressive wing of the Nationalist Party, co-founded by Sun Yat-sen’s widow Soong Ching-ling; the China Democratic League was the influential third way in 1940s, taking a centrist position between the Nationalist and Communist parties. The China Zhi Gong Party was founded in the 1920s in the United States to represent overseas Chinese.
But under the PRC, these parties “ceased to be democratic or parties in any commonly understood sense of these words,” a characterization made by Chinese politics scholar James Seymour in 1986 that is still relevant today. The parties went through a series of their own “overhauls,” most notably during the Cultural Revolution, during which opposition to the Communist Party was purged or prosecuted. Prominent figures in the third way who had been “ideologically transformed” were allowed to stay on in order to provide an image of inclusiveness. Today, those parties, with their survival hinging on the Communist Party’s blessing, have become satellite parties and the CPPCC a “political flower vase,” both functioning as devices to legitimize “Chinese-style democracy.”
It is doubtful that the parties genuinely represent the people’s voice anymore. You can imagine the consequence if a delegate were to advocate in the CPPCC for the Taiwanese, Chinese liberals, or overseas Chinese. Even the ex-Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party declared the death of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong; there is no chance of a similar comment ever coming before the CPPCC.
The Post-Handover Remaking of LegCo
The current “overhaul” in Hong Kong is reminiscent of Beijing’s previous actions around the time of the city’s handover to China in 1997. Hong Kong was then facing a confidence crisis over whether the city’s system would survive under Communist Party rule. Among other issues, the institution of the legislature was in question: The last cohort of legislators elected by the British colonial general election were supposed to end their four-year term two years after the handover. In this context, Beijing promised a “through train proposal,” under which all the councilors would remain in office until the term’s end.
However, angered by the democratic reform proposed by the last colonial governor, Chris Patten, Beijing retaliated by calling off the through train and setting up its own legislature in parallel to the preexisting one. The new body took the same name as the British colonial one: the “Provisional Legislative Council.” However, unlike the fully elected, preexisting LegCo, the CCP-friendly alternative’s seats were filled by appointments made by a 400-member committee. To make this body look legitimate, half of the councilors were from the preexisting legislature, but none came from the largest Democratic Party in the pro-democracy camp-dominated legislature. The resulting body was made up mostly of pro-Beijing figures, including 10 who had lost in the last general election.
Although general elections occurred later in post-handover Hong Kong, the two years with the Provisional LegCo left an irreparable legacy. Laws were passed to restrict protests, election rules changed to favor the establishment, and veto power was given to a special category of legislators dominated by pro-Beijing figures.
The LegCo Overhaul 2.0
A common theme in these previous episodes is the need to install a loyal opposition as a political fig leaf, in order to legitimize these hollowed-out institutions. With all prominent pro-democracy figures either jailed or exiled, this role in Hong Kong’s remade LegCo will likely be filled by former democratic politicians who once held elected office, preferably from parties across the democratic spectrum. Despite their past political affiliations, they will neither represent the voices of pro-democratic Hong Kongers nor advocate for the popular demand for political reforms. These will be figures who were not re-elected because they lost touch with the pro-democratic electorate in the first place. The National Security Law will ensure that authorities can arrest lawmakers not toeing Beijing’s line.
But their participation matters for legitimizing the elections. Casual observers in mainland China or abroad might mistakenly assume that these candidates’ mandates, obtained a decade or more ago, still hold; their diverse origins could give the illusion that a wide spectrum of voting blocs – whom these politicians can no longer claim to represent – support Beijing’s new directive of “patriots rule Hong Kong.” These figures might even be given leading roles in LegCo. On the one hand, this could promote the narrative that the overhaul provides governing opportunities to the pro-democracy camp and, on the other hand, divide the camp along the lines of whether to participate in these nominal elections in future.
These operations – or “overhauls,” to use the current parlance – are not new. They follow the Communist Party’s long-time “united front” playbook, one of the three “magic weapons” credited by Mao with overthrowing the Nationalist government and founding the People’s Republic of China. The playbook of hollowing out well-regarded institutions and concepts has worked well in the past. Hong Kong’s legislature is heading toward the same fate. Worst of all, the propaganda machine could distort the common understanding of what democracy is, so the world may not even fully realize what Hong Kong has lost.
The author acknowledges Chris Wong and Michelle King for their assistance with this piece.