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Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

About eight months since imposing a national security law on Hong Kong, Beijing is moving to further tighten its grip over the supposedly highly autonomous region.

On Feb. 28, 47 former lawmakers and activists in Hong Kong were charged with “conspiracy to commit subversion,” which carries a possible life sentence. The Western world has offered support, with Canada announcing on Feb. 5 – days after a similar British initiative – that Hong Kong residents could apply for work permits that could lead to permanent residency.

But now, China’s National People’s Congress is expected to review legislation that would ensure that anyone elected to any office – from district councillors to the chief executive – would be, in the government’s eyes, a “patriot” who supports the Chinese Communist Party.

Xia Baolong, director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, gave a landmark speech on Feb. 22 declaring that Beijing would unilaterally implement changes to Hong Kong’s systems to “ensure that the members of the administrative, legislative and judicial bodies of the special administrative region, and the heads of important statutory bodies, are all held by true patriots.” Mr. Xia went on to define “patriots” using the words of former Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, whose 1982 ultimatum about the then-British colony led to its eventual full transfer in 1997. In June, 1984, Mr. Deng had described a patriot as “one who respects the Chinese nation, sincerely supports the motherland’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong and wishes not to impair Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.”

But this new emphasis on party loyalty marks a departure from Mr. Deng’s actual pledge. Mr. Xia chose not to repeat the rest of the late leader’s quote: “Those who meet these requirements are patriots, whether they believe in capitalism or feudalism or even slavery. We don’t demand that they be in favour of China’s socialist system; we only ask them to love the motherland and Hong Kong.”

Instead, Mr. Xia urged the need to uphold the Chinese constitution, which was amended in 2018 by the addition of the words “Communist Party of China” and its “leadership” to the document’s main body. Thus, Mr. Xia suggests that Hong Kong people now have an obligation to support the Communist party.

This spirit is clearly contrary to Mr. Deng’s intent, but it has already been adopted by Hong Kong’s administration. “You cannot say that you are patriotic but you do not love the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party or you do not respect it – this does not make sense,” said Erick Tsang, Hong Kong’s secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs. He added: “Patriotism is holistic love.”

Mr. Deng showed wisdom in deciding not to politicize Hong Kong. If Hong Kong is to remain an international financial centre, it is important that the global financial services community has confidence in the integrity of its institutions – especially those having to do with stock and futures exchanges, banking, anticorruption, and perhaps most importantly, the judiciary. Hong Kong’s Basic Law provides that foreigners can serve as judges and up to 20 per cent of legislators can be foreign nationals; an emphasis on patriotism would put such people in an awkward position, to put it mildly.

It is somewhat reassuring that Mr. Xia asserted in his speech that “the vast majority of Chinese citizens in Hong Kong society are patriotic,” with only a few “anti-China rioters.” This being the case, it would appear unnecessary to subject everyone to a loyalty test – and, in particular, to insist on allegiance to the Communist Party.

Over the last 70 years, China has seen no shortage of political turmoil. Mr. Deng wanted a buffer between Hong Kong and the mainland’s internal political debates. That buffer helped smooth Hong Kong’s return to China, and it is still needed so long as “one country, two systems” governance continues. After all, China recognizes that a special administrative region, which is the constitutional status of Hong Kong, has a political system different from that on the mainland.

Mr. Xia said “political dissent can be allowed,” but it cannot be permitted “to damage the fundamental system of the country – that is, damage the leadership of the Communist Party of China.” So perhaps the degree of political dissent in Hong Kong will reflect the situation in the mainland, where several “minority parties” that support the Communist Party are allowed to exist.

He also said that having patriots in charge is the only way “one country, two systems” can be successful. But this raises the question: How is that different from one country, one system?

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