Donald Trump may not be able to postpone an election but the autocrats who run China can, at the stroke of a pen. Last week, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections, scheduled for September, were quarantined for at least a year, ostensibly because of COVID-19. Actual reason? Democrats were on the verge of taking control of Hong Kong’s legislature.
Beijing couldn’t have that, and so Hong Kongers can’t have an election – at least not until Beijing figures out how to do a better job of rigging the outcome.
It’s the latest step in the dismantling of Hong Kong’s autonomous status, the so-called – and increasingly fictional – one country, two systems.
In June, Beijing imposed a new national security law on the territory. Among other things, it aims to allow China’s politically directed legal system to reach into Hong Kong and try people for political offences. The city has long enjoyed near-absolute rights to free speech, assembly and protest, but these may now be criminalized if someone advocates ideas that upset the Communist Party.
In response, some democratic organizations have shut their doors, and a number of prominent pro-democracy voices have either gone silent or fled overseas, fearing arrest and a lifetime in a Chinese prison.
And yet despite those threats, Hong Kong’s democratic forces were looking forward to next’s month elections – which offered an opportunity, perhaps the last one ever, to show how Hong Kong people really feel.
The Legislative Council, or LegCo, has 70 seats. It was carefully designed to allow some opposition, while always ensuring a Beijing-friendly outcome. It currently has just 22 pro-democracy members. That’s because, of 70 legislators, only 35 are elected by voters, by proportional representation. Five seats are drawn from the elected local councils.
The remaining 30 members come from what are known as functional constituencies. They’re industry associations – a seat for insurance companies, one for construction firms, and so on. These business groups are highly responsive to backroom pressure from China.
Beijing set up the system, but the democrats figured out how to hack it.
Last year, they won a landslide victory in local elections – the key to five of 70 seats. And last month, under the guidance of professor and pro-democracy activist Benny Tai, pro-democracy forces held what they called a primary vote, to settle on common LegCo candidates. The goal was to avoid vote-splitting, with the aim of achieving “35+” in September – a democratic majority in the 70-seat house.
The primary was a huge success, with more than 600,000 Hong Kongers coming out to vote.
It gave the pro-democracy forces a real shot at capturing the LegCo in September. With a majority, they would have the power to set the legislative agenda, block or impeach Beijing’s hand-picked Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, and push back against China.
Ms. Lam hinted at Beijing’s response when she said that pro-democracy voters choosing common candidates in a primary was “not part of Hong Kong’s electoral system.” And she added what she called a “warning.”
“If this so-called primary election’s purpose is to achieve the ultimate goal of delivering what they call a 35+, with the objective of objecting to or resisting every policy initiative,” of the Hong Kong government, “then it may fall into the category of ‘subverting state power,’ which is one of the four types of offences under the new national security law.”
In other words, if pro-democracy forces agree to be lap dogs, and stay in their pen, they are free to run. But if they have their own ideas about Hong Kong’s future, they could wind up before the courts and behind bars. So goes democracy in the People’s Republic.
Last Friday, to avoid the public and global humiliation of an election defeat, Beijing simply postponed the election. If and when it goes ahead, a dozen democratic candidates, including four sitting members, are barred from running. And Mr. Tai, who last year was sentenced to 16 months in prison for leading the 2014 pro-democracy protests, has been booted from his position at Hong Kong University.
One country, two systems was a solemn promise. By international treaty, Beijing pledged to maintain it for at least 50 years. The deal appears to be off, 27 years early.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.