Is Beijing trying to say something to the remnants of Hong Kong’s beleaguered democracy movement? Readers might well draw such a conclusion from the timing and content of a white paper published in late June by the central government on the subject of China’s own little-known multi-party tradition.

18th CPC Congress Beijing Nov 2012
Guard listening to the final work report made by secretary-general and Chinese president Hu Jintao at the start of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China in 2012. Photo: Remko Tanis via Flickr.

There are eight such parties, all dating back to before the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949. Their right to take part in state affairs is protected by the constitution and the white paper aims to show how multi-party political life carries on under the CCP’s overarching authority.

The document is entitled, in Chinese, “China’s New-Style Political Party System,” and in English, “China’s Political Party System: Cooperation and Consultation.” Together, the two titles present the official case for political life under communist party rule.

They also come with a proud and defiant boast: designed of, by, and for Chinese, impinging on no one else and beholden to none. No direct citizen participation. No apologies.

The design is reminiscent of Hong Kong’s colonial-era governance that was advertised as a successful amalgam of consultation and consensus. Except that the British called their Hong Kong system a benign autocracy, whereas Beijing’s official self-portrait is anything but benign.

Given the changes underway here, it does not require too great a leap of imagination to see Beijing’s ideas about the future of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy groups and parties written in the fate of their eight mainland counterparts. 

The white paper was released not long after the June 12 keynote address by Hong Kong Liaison Office Director Luo Huining, Beijing’s top representative in Hong Kong. His speech was one of many events marking the CCP’s birthday, 100 years ago, and Hong Kong’s 1997 transfer from British back to Chinese rule. Both events occurred on July 1. 

That date also marked the one-year anniversary of Hong Kong’s first full day under the strict new National Security Law, which was promulgated by Beijing for Hong Kong on June 30, 2020. The law was imposed as punishment for Hong Kong’s ongoing resistance to political life under Beijing.

In his speech, Luo introduced a new political narrative that features the CCP coming out to take a bow and claim full credit for all aspects of the 1997 transfer, including key decisions made both beforehand and afterwards. Previous accounts have usually left the CCP out of it, relying instead on non-political terms like “Beijing” or the “central government.”

Looking back – China’s democratic party tradition 

The White Paper begins with some historical context that also places the CCP front and centre. China’s unique party system is said to be rooted in the best of its traditions. Its people aspire to peace and harmony, seeking the common good while containing differences.

After the 1911 revolution overthrew the ancient imperial order, China set out to learn from the West and adopted parliamentary politics with multiple new parties. This did not work out so well.

From 1912 when the first cabinet was established, to 1928, the head of state was replaced 10 times, and the prime minister 59 times. Between 1912 and 1949, there were five parliaments and seven constitutions. All of this was accompanied by great social turmoil.

After 1927, the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek established a one-party dictatorship. The CCP and its military forces resisted and in 1949 prevailed.

The current political system began to develop from 1948 when the CCP, anticipating victory, called for a political consultative conference. Several left-leaning parties responded and accepted CCP leadership at that time – the eight parties in existence today.

The tradition of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference that outsiders find so curious also began then, with the 1948 convocation of parties. Today the National Committee of the CPPCC meets annually at the same time as the National People’s Congress for the “Two Sessions” event each year.

The white paper on China’s multi-party system was released by the central government’s information office, but the introductory press conference on June 25 was something of a rarity, as it featured Xu Yousheng, deputy director of the CCP’s secretive United Front Work Department. 

This department’s work is dedicated to promoting the CCP’s influence among sympathetic non-party people both within China and in the wider world. It follows that the department is the organising authority responsible for the CPPCC system and for leading the work of China’s eight small parties as well. They are not autonomous and do not act on their own.

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The People’s Liberation Army of China entered Beijing in 1949. Photo: Wikipedia.

 At the press conference announcing the white paper’s release, deputy director Xu said China’s multi-party system “represents the fundamental interests of the peoples of all ethnic groups and social sectors rather than only a select few or vested interests.” 

The system, he said, prevents political parties from acting mainly in their own interests or those of the specific regions and groups they represent.

The message was upbeat throughout but there are some sombre parallels between past and present, reflected in the experience of the old parties and those under siege in Hong Kong today. 

South China Morning Post writer Eduardo Baptista reviewed some of that experience in one of the Post’s multi-part series marking the CCP’s centenary. James Seymour did the same in his 1987 book on China’s Satellite Parties.

Xu Yousheng of the Chinese United Front Work Department.
Xu Yousheng of the Chinese United Front Work Department. Photo: Wikipedia.

Much like Hong Kong’s pro-democracy groups and parties that date from the 1980s, some of their pre-1949 predecessors had also focused on democratic reform. The target then was the pre-1949 KMT government. 

But the era of more genuine united front cooperation lasted less than a decade after 1949, as the CCP’s campaigns to broaden and deepen the revolution moved forward beyond the original landlord and rich peasant and big capitalist targets. It reached intellectuals and professionals – mainstays of what were called the “democratic parties and groups” – during the 1956-57 Hundred Flowers campaign and its aftermath.

Too many took too literally the invitation to “let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.” Or perhaps it was a trap, as many said afterwards. But following the upsurge of criticism directed against various aspects of CCP rule, the clampdown ensured that its power emerged unchallenged. 

Party leaders led by Mao Zedong then launched the sequence of campaigns that aimed to revolutionise the entire society, from the 1958 Great Leap Forward, to the Socialist Education Campaign in the early 1960s, and on through the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution decade.

China 1958 great leap forward steel furnaces
Struggles in front of the open hearth furnace during the Great Leap Forward era in 1958 China. Photo: Wikipedia.

The eight officially recognised parties emerged intact but not unscathed. Seymour suggests they were never allowed the possibility of genuine revival after the Hundred Flowers experience. 

Baptista mentions the four-point slogan now used and cited in the white paper, to summarise their advisory role as appendages of the ruling party: “long-term coexistence, mutual supervision, concern for all, together in good times and bad.” He suggests that only the first point bears any relation to present-day reality.

Looking forward – towards a united front future

The question now is whether Hong Kong’s pro-democracy parties and groups can be forced into the united front mould. It’s difficult to imagine, but that seems to be the message coming from Beijing. The developing clampdown here is comparable to the high tide of the rectification campaigns that succeeded in subduing their pre-1949 predecessors.

The June 30, 2020, National Security Law imposed by Beijing was the first blow in this regard, leading to the mass arrest of political activists in January. Most have been denied bail and the next hearing in their case is not scheduled until September – just as the election season is getting underway.

The second blow was the overhaul of Hong Kong’s election system decreed by Beijing on March 30 this year. The new system is designed to ensure that pro-democracy candidates can win no more than perhaps a dozen seats on the enlarged 90-seat Legislative Council.

Carrie Lam Erick Tsang Teresa Cheng Roy Tang election electoral overhaul
Chief Executive Carrie Lam (centre) and other government officials meet the press on April 13, 2021. Photo: GovHK.

The third blow was the new oath-taking law, passed by Hong Kong’s Legislative Council in May.The council is currently sitting in extended session, for a year, due to the coronavirus pandemic and Beijing’s need for time to overhaul the election system. The local legislature is also minus virtually all pro-democracy councillors, who were either disqualified or resigned in protest. 

The new oath-taking law is now being retroactively enforced in such a way as to remove virtually all the pro-democracy District Councillors who had captured majorities on all but one of Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils in the November 2019 election. 

In these ways, even if the election system had not been redesigned to minimise their chances of victory, all the strongest pro-democracy candidates have been taken out of political circulation by reason of their past political sins. 

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The district council election in November 2019. File Photo: Galileo Cheng/HKFP.

Those remaining within the hollowed-out shell of Hong Kong’s democracy movement are now debating what to do – and whether or not to take part in the coming election cycle. The key dates are: September for the Election Committee, centrepiece of the new system; December for the Legislative Council; and March 2022 for the chief executive.

The democratic survivors essentially have two choices. To take part is to signal a measure of acceptance, thereby lending legitimacy to the new national security regime. But to boycott is to remove themselves from the political arena altogether, lose whatever influence they might be able to exert, and risk sinking back into the political inertia of colonial days. 

Failure to boycott does not guarantee participation, because the new standards decree that only loyalists or “patriots” will henceforth be allowed to occupy positions within any part of the governing establishment. For the definition of patriots, read united front loyalists.

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

The Democratic Party is still the largest of Hong Kong’s many political groups, as it has been since its founding in the early 1990s. Members have so far failed to reach agreement on whether to take part in the coming elections. Leaders are promising a decision by September. 

The Civic Party, founded by lawyers and academics in 2006, has been badly damaged by arrests and resignations. Its leaders reportedly aim to maintain a public presence but are still discussing how best to reposition what remains of their party.

Only the League of Social Democrats has had no difficulty reaching a decision: it will not field candidates in the coming election contests and will not take part in what it regards as a political charade. 

Civic Party Jeremy Tam followed
Member of the Civic Party at a press conference on June 6, 2020. File Photo: Civic Party.

The League’s most famous member is Hong Kong’s oldest radical, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung. He is now among the many politicians and activists who have taken up residence for an indefinite period within Hong Kong’s prison system — all authorised by what is still officially proclaimed as an “independent” judicial system. It’s just that the principles of prosecutorial discretion and judicial deference have taken a different turn.

Meanwhile, Beijing is trying to be helpful by providing not-so-subtle hints such as those suggested by the white paper and some direct advice as well. Among the latter is the purge-and-rectify solution recently introduced by Beijing academic Tian Feilong. 

district council election police riot
Photo: StandNews.

His proposed “struggle, criticism, reform” routine, adapted from the Maoist era, was not too well-received by the Democratic Party that he thinks stands the best chance of rehabilitation. But if it follows his advice, it will be able to pass muster as the ninth officially recognised satellite party.

One reason it is difficult to imagine Hong Kong’s pro-democracy partisans forcing themselves into the united front mould is that the city already has a well-developed field of united front practitioners. And these are the people whom democrats have been opposing at the ballot box since universal suffrage was introduced in the 1990s. 

These opponents form the mainstay of the two largest pro-Beijing organisations: the DAB political party and the FTU trade union federation. Pro-establishment business elites are also part of the united front effort and are occasionally rewarded with appointments allowing them to join Hong Kong’s National People’s Congress and CPPCC delegations.

carrie lam
Carrie Lam and Chinese sports minister Liu Peng during Chinese Olympic delegation visit to Hong Kong in 2016, welcomed by patriots. File Photo: GovHK.

Plus, there is an additional layer of little-known united front grassroots organisations that blanket the entire city and its suburbs. These groups are now preparing for their first appearance in the political spotlight because they are being given a new role as electors of the all-important 1,500-member Election Committee. 

Under this new system, the Election Committee is not only responsible for the selection of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive but will itself choose 40 members of the new 90-seat Legislative Council, and will also be responsible for the nominations of all 90 LegCo candidates. 

This last follows from the new requirement that each aspiring candidate, to qualify, must obtain the signatures of five Election Committee members, and specifically, one from each of the five different Election Committee sub-sectors — some of which are more uniformly “patriotic” than others. 

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HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.
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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 following Hong Kong's integration within the Chinese political system dates back to 2009.