China’s Communist Party wields much, if not all, of the political power in Hong Kong, having chipped away at the “one country, two systems” model meant to guarantee the former British colony’s unique freedoms after being returned to mainland rule.
Four elected opposition lawmakers were ousted last year and those remaining resigned in protest, further skewing the city legislature toward Beijing loyalists. Mainland allies have also long represented the majority on a committee that selects the city’s leader.
Outsized political influence has allowed Beijing the ability to exercise its will over Hong Kong, often thinly disguising it as ‘process’ – for instance, passing a law last June through city legislature making it illegal to insult the Chinese national anthem.
In some instances, China has completely bypassed Hong Kong, imposing new laws at will, including introducing a sweeping national security law last summer criminalising any behaviour deemed as subversion, secession, terrorism or foreign collusion.
Now, China is moving to remove the last threads of political opposition in Hong Kong by introducing restrictions on the city’s electoral system to identify and bar candidates deemed unpatriotic from running for any elected office.
China is expected to press forward with plans to create a senior group of government officials with the legal authority to investigate and determine whether candidates are loyal to Beijing.
Hong Kong officials also plan to introduce a bill requiring district councillors, one of the lowest elected offices, to take loyalty oaths and ban them from running again for five years if deemed unpatriotic.
Local councillors have no legislative power and instead oversee community affairs, such as upgrading public facilities or organising cultural activities.
But in November 2019, Beijing was alarmed when pro-democracy candidates tripled their seats on district councils to hold a record 389 of 452 elected spots in a stunning victory – viewed as a referendum against China’s leadership at the end of a long year of mass protests.
Such actions – blocking candidates, no matter how little power they have while in office – are aimed at ensuring only one voice in government is allowed to shine through, and to snuff out future revivals of the pro-democracy movement.
It also serves to prompt more Hongkongers, worried about a lack of liberties in the city, to move abroad – giving them even further reason to flee. Already activists are seeking asylum in countries including the UK.
Protesters during mass unrest in 2019 spoke of fears that Hong Kong would soon become ‘just another Chinese city’ – governed by an ever-tightening authoritarian government that demands complete deference and punishes any pocket of dissent.
Beijing has done everything in its power to first squash the protests and create a culture of fear, and now to ensure that political dissent never returns, suggesting that those fears are indeed quickly coming true.