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Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

Days before the United States convened a summit for democracy in early December, Beijing issued a white paper titled China: Democracy That Works. In it, the government extolled its own system, claiming that the Communist Party of China had developed a “whole-process people’s democracy,” a term first used by President Xi Jinping in 2019. The paper said that China, which was not invited to Washington’s summit, did not duplicate Western models of democracy – “but created its own.”

But if Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections, held Dec. 19, were meant to demonstrate this style of democracy, they left something to be desired.

The vote was held under a new, Beijing-designed system in which all candidates were vetted to ensure that only those deemed “patriots” would be elected. Pro-establishment candidates went on to win 89 of 90 seats. The 30.2-per-cent turnout was a record low, down from 58.3 per cent in 2016. Pro-democracy candidates had historically won a majority of votes, and this time it seems that many of their supporters – particularly those from the middle class – refrained from voting. The Hong Kong government had tried hard to persuade people to vote, even making public transportation free on election day, and yet, on Dec. 19, amusement parks were packed – but not polling stations.

The elections were condemned by the West. The Group of Seven, the European Union and the Five Eyes countries – the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – issued statements voicing “grave concern over the erosion of democratic elements.” But Chinese officials, including Mr. Xi, hailed the outcome.

The day after the elections, China issued another white paper, Hong Kong Democratic Progress Under the Framework of One Country, Two Systems. This paper linked the elections to “whole-process people’s democracy” on the mainland and said the groundwork had now been laid “for developing democracy in Hong Kong under the framework of One Country, Two Systems.”

That message was clearly meant for the international community. The Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry’s commissioner in Hong Kong, Liu Guangyuan, even briefed diplomats and foreign chambers of commerce on the matter, assuring them that both the Communist Party and the Chinese government were certain of “the long-term success of both the capitalist system in Hong Kong and a form of democracy suited to its realities.”

Beijing continues to insist that Hong Kong is a matter of internal Chinese affairs, in which foreigners should not interfere. That includes the new electoral system as well as the national security law that was imposed in 2020, which are key pieces of legislation used by Hong Kong authorities to regain control and crack down on opposition figures and institutions after the turmoil of 2019, when mass protests often turned into riots. Yet the Chinese government has deployed the issue of democracy in Hong Kong to hit back at its critics. Indeed, Mr. Liu emphasized that there was no “one size fits all” path to democracy, nor a “single, superior model.” And now, having defined China’s governance as democratic, it naturally follows that whatever system is eventually imposed on the region will also be called a democracy – just one with Hong Kong characteristics.

Beijing’s supporters have shrugged off the low turnout of the elections, saying that what really matters is the performance of the new, opposition-free legislature. But that’s where the problem lies. The government cites the law every time it is accused of violating people’s rights. A legislature willing to give the government a free pass is a threat to liberty.

After the police raided the Stand News media outlet on Dec. 29, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said “nobody should associate law enforcement actions by the police department with the freedom of the press.” Citing U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, she agreed that “journalism is not sedition,” but added: “Seditious acts and activities and inciting other people through public acts and activities could not be condoned under the guise of news reporting.”

Without opposition voices in the legislature, the government is now free to pass any law it pleases. This was reflected in Ms. Lam’s attitude in an interview last July. Radio host Hugh Chiverton mentioned a leaked, off-the-record speech she gave to business leaders in August, 2019, in which she said she had caused “unforgivable havoc.” Ms. Lam said in the interview that the media should not have reported on the private event; Mr. Chiverton argued there’s no law against doing so.

Her swift, unnerving rejoinder: “Perhaps a law needs to be introduced.”

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