This is the month that Hongkongers will be handed the blueprint for their political future, and it’s not going to be pretty.
As the “two sessions”—the annual plenary meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)—open on Thursday, political and electoral reform in Hong Kong are high on the agenda.
Chinese leaders clearly aim to use the eight-day sessions to crush any remaining forms and outlets of opposition in the city since Beijing’s imposition of a sweeping national security law last June brought the hammer down on what was once a lively culture of independent thinking, self-expression and dissent.
The broad outline of the constitutional changes Hong Kong can expect has already been flagged by Xia Baolong, vice-chairman of the CPPCC’s National Committee and head of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council.
In an online speech last week at a forum sponsored by the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, Xi underscored the importance of “patriots governing Hong Kong” and pointed toward constitutional changes to be proposed at the two sessions to ensure loyalty to the Chinese leadership in all three branches of the Hong Kong government — executive, legislative and judicial.
Soon after the sessions end, the NPC’s Standing Committee can be expected to turn these proposals into laws that forever change Hong Kong’s political landscape.
The fact that the so-called reforms are, like the national security law, to be written in Beijing and force-fed to Hong Kong is yet another sign of the dramatic change the city has undergone in the past eight months. Under the “one country, two systems” principle, Hong Kong had previously been a largely autonomous, self-governing city with an independent judiciary and a legislature in which there was ample space for dissent.
But that’s all over now. The constitutional remake likely to emerge from the two sessions is almost certain to serve as a tragic bookend to the oppressive changes already brought about by the national security law.
True, the national security law (with a big assist from Covid-19) has been hugely successful in quelling the sort of anti-government protests that raged in the streets of Hong Kong for six consecutive months of 2019 and into January of 2020. It has also seen much of the pan-democratic opposition either arrested or forced into exile in the West and has led to unprecedented self-censorship in the Hong Kong media and publishing industries.
But that’s not enough. For Beijing, there is still the thorny problem of Hong Kong’s 18 district councils, 17 of which are controlled by pan-democrats who have been hypercritical of both the Hong Kong and central governments.
You can bet the two sessions will have something mind-altering to say about that. More districts may be created to dilute the influence of the pan-dems, who will also be subject to a patriotic loyalty oath, and surely seats now occupied by district council representatives on the Election Committee for chief executive — which comprise roughly 10 per cent of the 1,200 committee members — will either disappear or be reassigned.
For years, progressive Hongkongers have been calling for an end to functional constituencies— the widely derided “rotten boroughs” in the Legislative Council (Legco) that serve as a bastion for special interests and Beijing loyalists — but their numbers are likely to increase after the two sessions.
Pro-Beijing lawmakers are seeking a two-thirds majority in Legco to guarantee passage of any legislation they favour. So you should not be surprised if the five city-wide elected super seats are abolished while functional constituency seats, which now make up half of the 70-member Legco, are increased.
As for the judiciary, foreign judges should start packing. Maybe it won’t happen this year, but their time will soon be up.
Think about it: “patriots governing Hong Kong”? How does a judge from, say, Canada or the United Kingdom fit the new job description? And, don’t forget, Chinese officials have repeatedly made it clear that they regard the judiciary not as an independent branch of government but, rather, as just another cooperative arm (and fist) to assist in the carrying out of stated central government objectives.
All of which brings us back to this problematic question of patriotism. It’s true that, thanks to Beijing’s increasingly hard line in the city and the incompetence of the local leaders entrusted to carry out its agenda, we have seen raw and violent hatred of the Chinese leadership on our streets — lots of it.
But, still, most Hongkongers remain patriotic, just not in the way Chinese officials demand.
Most of those who attend the annual (now probably banned) candle-light vigil honouring the hundreds if not thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators who died in and around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, regard themselves as patriots. They are there because they love China, but they also want China to be a freer, more democratic place.
Likewise, most Hongkongers are proud of the stunning economic and technological progress China has made over the last four decades. But, again, they also treasure the personal freedoms that are fast disappearing in Hong Kong.
So many Hongkongers wanted “one country, two systems” to work.
But then it didn’t.
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