After a crackdown which was decades in the making, it took just one year to destroy Hong Kong’s democracy movement as it existed before June 30, 2020 when Beijing promulgated a national security law for Hong Kong.

The law had to be imposed because local resistance had prevented the Hong Kong government from passing such a law on its own. Since June 30 last year, two additional blows have been struck. 

Democratic Party Chairperson Lo Kin-hei in a fund-raising bid on April 19, 2021. Photo: Democratic Party, via Facebook.

An election law promulgated by Beijing on March 30 is designed to ensure that any remaining pro-democracy partisans can win no more than token representation in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. Finally, at Beijing’s behest, new oath-taking regulations were passed into law by the Legislative Council, on May 12.

New political landscape

Political life here will henceforth be governed by these three new laws that together aim to guarantee the political loyalty of everyone in all positions of authority. In official language, that means only “patriots” can occupy such positions as a member of the Legislative Council, of the 18 neighbourhood-level District Councils, or of the civil service. 

The definition of patriot is spelt out in the new oath-taking law, which details how office- holders should demonstrate political loyalty and allegiance – to both Beijing’s sovereign right to rule Hong Kong in the way Beijing chooses, and to Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution. 

This last was drafted under Beijing’s supervision and promulgated in 1990, to serve as a legal framework for at least 50 years after Hong Kong’s 1997 transfer from British to Chinese rule. The new decrees emphasise that the Basic Law is not a stand-alone document but derives its authority from China’s national constitution. 

Thus, in reality, the Basic Law does not signify the “high degree of autonomy” that was originally suggested by all the advance publicity. The clarifications are now, finally, defining Beijing’s terms.

According to the new rules spelt out for the benefit of those administering and taking the newly mandated oath of allegiance, signatures and spoken words are not enough.

Top officials take oaths of allegiance in December 2020. Photo: GovHK screenshot.

It is no longer enough merely to pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China and agree to uphold the Basic Law. Additionally, upholding the Basic Law and pledging allegiance means “to intend to genuinely and truthfully observe, support, maintain, and embrace and to do so both in words and deeds.

 Since 1997, all leading officials including Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and members of the advisory Executive Council have been subject to such rules in the form of Beijing’s oversight. Top officials and department heads cannot hold office without Beijing’s consent, a point that actually took several years to clarify during the early post-1997 years. 

That initial lesson – about Beijing’s substantive rather than nominal power of appointment for top officials – and all that has happened since, suggest that its original idea was to play things by ear.

The governing principle written into the Basic Law was “one country, two systems”, to include all the basic rights and freedoms. Promises about autonomy were expressed only in the same general terms and everyone hoped for the best.

Senior Democratic Party figures. Photo: Democratic Party via Facebook.

Now that things have not gone to Beijing’s liking, the blank spaces are being filled in and the rules are being spelt out, revealing details that would have provoked far more turmoil than the vague terms initially did during the transition to 1997. The worst fears from those pre-1997 years are now coming to pass.

‘One country, two systems’ and national security

Since Beijing is now openly asserting its right to make the rules for Hong Kong, what does it have in mind for Hong Kong’s political scene under the new national security regime? 

For now, this can only be deduced by considering the suggestions of Beijing-affiliated KOLs (new shorthand for Knowledgeable Opinion Leaders) and attempting to divine the implications. Beijing academic Tian Feilong is currently a favourite purveyor of such opinions, so his views are as good a place to start as any. He thinks Hong Kong’s Democratic Party can lead the way forward.

The next election cycle — the first under the national security arrangements — is just months away and attention has begun to focus on the now decimated pro-democracy end of Hong Kong’s political spectrum.

The Legislative Council election, originally scheduled for September 2020, was postponed and has now been rescheduled for this coming December. In the past, pro-democracy candidates have routinely won over half the popular votes cast for the council’s directly elected seats.

But under the government’s new blunderbuss approach, virtually all the democrats’ most popular candidates have been taken out of the running and are currently in jail. Most were arrested during a mass roundup in January, all on suspicion of violating the national security law.

This they unwittingly did by taking part in the July 2020 informal primary election or straw poll, organised to winnow the field of pro-democracy candidates in preparation for the approaching election. 

Trial dates have yet to be set since, conveniently, police investigations are ongoing. Most of those arrested have been denied bail on the new national security grounds, namely, lack of proof that they will not re-offend. The principle of innocent until proven guilty no longer applies.

Newly designated national security judges, specially selected from those already sitting on the bench, have so far not failed in their duty to ignore the common law norms which they were originally bound to uphold. 

The new bail criteria include even “improper” political sentiments expressed on social media, with all such means of communication now being used as evidence. Of course, these judges must also consider the likelihood that many suspects might abscond and flee abroad, which several like-minded partisans have already done.

The fact that the “primary election case” will conveniently keep Hong Kong’s most popular politicians out of circulation throughout the coming election season is of course never mentioned in court proceedings.

Tiffany Yuen and her election team. Photo: Studio Incendo.

As if on autoplay, official discourse nevertheless continues to repeat all the old guarantees for Hong Kong under the “one-country, two systems” formula. Some might call it a shameless distortion of reality.

In fact, Beijing’s main fault was not to have explained all that was actually meant by the Basic Law promises. Autonomy under party rule is something different from autonomy otherwise. Universal suffrage is guaranteed by China’s national constitution as well as Hong Kong’s Basic Law, but mainland elections are not the same as their Western counterparts. 

Despite all the debates and controversies over the years, no one ever pressed for definitions about what kind of autonomy and universal suffrage elections Beijing’s drafters had in mind when they wrote those guarantees into Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

Nobody pressed the issue while campaigning and agitating continued, apparently always on the assumption that things would eventually be worked out. So officials also allowed the question of definitions to slide – until now.

Photo: GovHK.

Professor Tian thinks Hong Kong’s Democratic Party is best suited to smooth over these double-use words and the decades-old misunderstandings that were allowed to grow around them. His idea was reported by the Chinese-language daily Ming Pao on May 15. Loyalist Legislative Councillor Junius Ho and his co-author K.T. Wong subsequently elaborated on Tian’s solution in an opinion piece of their own.

The goal, now being emphasised by many other pro-establishment commentators as well, is to ensure “opposition” representation in the new legislature. Appearances must be maintained despite the massive makeover.

“One-country, two-systems” remains the guiding governing principle, which means that the customary concept of a loyal opposition is now further complicated by Beijing’s definition of patriotism. 

Professor Tian glosses over this contradiction – in the style to which Hongkongers have grown accustomed – assuming it can somehow be remedied by the means at hand. He thinks the Democratic Party is best suited for this task, probably because it is the oldest and largest of Hong Kong’s many pro-democracy groups, has survived many upheavals, and has trended toward “moderation” in post-1997 political controversies.

The party currently has fewer than a thousand members. By comparison, the main pro-government party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), is a mass-based organization similar in design to its Communist Party mentor and claims 44,000 members.

Democratic Party flashback

The Democratic Party was founded by two of the most popular and respected leaders to emerge from Hong Kong’s nascent democracy movement in the 1980s. It grew in response to Beijing’s announcement that Hong Kong’s colonial life would come to an end in 1997. Hongkongers would be granted autonomy and allowed to govern themselves thereafter.

The leaders were lawyer Martin Lee Chu-ming and teachers’ union activist Szeto Wah. Their party was established in 1994, as a merger of several groups that had formed during the 1980s. Still, some of the most moderate – as determined by their orientation to the new administration taking shape under Beijing’s direction – did not join the new party. 

Disagreements grew after 1997 when Hong Kong’s new Basic Law designs began falling into place. The degree of autonomy was not what many had hoped, and only certain Hongkongers were tapped for leading roles. Tensions flared in the early 2000s, when several “Young Turks” rebelled against the new system. They called the Legislative Council nothing more than a debating club, and the party let them go rather than try to accommodate their demands or follow them “back to the streets.”

Democratic Party vice chair Lee Wing-tat. File Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP,

That left what the radicals termed moderates at the helm of the Democratic Party, their image reinforced by the moderate makeover of one-time firebrand Emily Lau. She and a small band of her Frontier fighters adapted to the new post-1997 order by joining the Democratic Party in 2008.

Others, angry at her defection, refused to follow and began cooperating with other like-minded activist groups. But then, by general agreement within the democracy movement as a whole, the Democratic Party took the lead in 2010 negotiations with Beijing representatives to try and negotiate a minor electoral reform initiative.

The party’s leading role in the negotiations was accepted despite its refusal to join the 2009-10 five-district referendum campaign. This was a project initiated by the new Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats, then led by “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and Raymond “Mad Dog” Wong Yuk-man. 

Five of their Legislative Councillors resigned – one from each of Hong Kong’s five election districts — thereby triggering an all-city special by-election to replace them. The idea was to focus public attention and mobilise popular support for electoral reform. 

The Alliance, the Labour Party and the League of Social Democrats led a 32-person procession in support of Wukan villagers in 2016. Photo: The League of Social Democrats, via Facebook.

Compounding the difficulty of their role as negotiators, Chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan and Vice-Chair Emily Lau ultimately agreed to something less than what they had originally pledged to accept. Their decision led to ugly scenes during the annual July 1, 2010 protest march soon afterwards, when the Democratic Party’s contingent was vilified throughout the entire route. The terminally ill Szeto Wah, by then in a wheelchair, was mocked for having approved the agreement with Beijing negotiators. 

Exasperated by Beijing’s endless delaying tactics, academic Benny Tai Yu-ting introduced his idea for civil disobedience that carried forward the struggle for “genuine” universal suffrage elections and morphed into the 2014 Occupy-Umbrella Movement.

This campaign reinforced demands for autonomy that by then were being reformulated in terms of self-determination and even independence. Campaigning for the 2016 Legislative Council election, all the pro-democracy candidates including even the most moderate Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood, reflected the drift of the movement toward those populist goals.

Divisions were finally submerged within the 2019 uprising. This was provoked by Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s insistence on trying to pass an extradition law that would have allowed suspects to be returned to China for trial.

Democratic Party leaders have also been steadfast supporters of the annual candlelight vigils to remember the victims of Beijing’s June 4, 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. The use of military force to clear the square marked the end of China’s own 1980s flirtation with democratic reform. 

Szeto Wah. Photo: K-ideas via Flickr.

Szeto Wah and Martin Lee were among the founders of the Hong Kong Alliance that until 2019 continued to organise the June 4 vigils in Victoria Park. The vigils have been suspended for the past two years, ostensibly due to the Covid pandemic.

Despite some “moderate” wavering by Democratic Party leaders over one of the June 4 slogans, calling for an end to one-party dictatorship, it remained among the demands proclaimed each year until the last officially-permitted vigil on June 4, 2019.

What price collaboration?

Unmoved by this record, Professor Tian confronts it head on. His prescription: a thorough housecleaning followed by transformational measures to remould the party in the style of the Communist Party. He thinks the party should begin with a purge of radical elements.

Divide and rule has always been a reliable if despised strategy used by occupying powers. But Tian’s version seems calculated to produce something less than the desired effect. In his view, clearing out the old is not enough. A new order must be built to replace it.

To correct its perceived missteps the party should create a “mainland and political affairs committee” and study Beijing’s policies. Democrats should also engage in self-reflection and reform in order to achieve the necessary patriotic credentials. 

Professor Tian has obviously internalised the rhythms of the old Maoist mass movement rectification campaigns, complete with their struggle, criticism, transformation —dou-pi-gai – sequence. In this way, he thinks the Democratic Party can redeem itself and find a place within the new election system. 

On the other hand, if the party fails to adopt the new standards and therefore cannot take part in the coming elections, that will amount to proof that it has lost its way in terms of the old moderate inclinations. 

If it then retreats to become just another pressure group, as some advocate, the party’s influence will be further diminished. The possibility of providing some sort of “loyal opposition” balance – thought by its promoters to be a necessary adjunct of the new order – will be lost. 

Current party chairman Lo Kin-hei responded by saying that as far as he could see, the party had no extremist elements, only democrats. And they would make their own decisions on what course to take.

In the face of Beijing’s current national security blitz, he is probably right. The party seems more united than it has ever been. But the unity may not last, and Professor Tian is among those trying to ensure that it doesn’t. 

Members are currently debating whether to take part in the coming election cycle. Some say “yes,” some say “no.” By Tian’s standard, the former are moderate, the latter radical. But veterans Emily Lau and Lee Wing-tat are among the most adamant in saying no.

Both are now far removed in age, experience, and advocacies from the immoderate self-determination and independence arguments of the younger generation. Lo Kin-hei, on the other hand, is a younger generation member and inclined toward “yes.” 

Together they are playing havoc with Tian’s clumsy attempt to untangle the web of distortions written into the “one-country, two-systems” formula. Nor has he even tried to reconcile its promises with the new realities of national security rule.


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Suzanne Pepper

Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and Hong Kong resident with a long-standing interest in Chinese politics. In her book, 'Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform', Pepper addresses debates surrounding democracy and dictatorship. Her blog follows the developing story of Hong Kong’s democracy movement as it struggles to maintain its coherence amid the growing pressures of integration within the Chinese political system.