Hong Kong’s electoral reform: is this the end of confrontational opposition, and who decides what’s a patriot?
- Beijing, according to sources, is preparing a rigorous political inoculation plan to tame the rebellious city down south
- Opposition’s primary last year could be the last straw for central government, following 2014’s Occupy movement, the 2016 Mong Kok riot and 2019’s months-long social unrest
China’s political elite will gather in Beijing this week for the year’s biggest legislative set piece, known as the “two sessions” or lianghui, facing a number of major political challenges, including the aftermath of the coronavirus and the ongoing rivalry with the United States. In this instalment of a series, Tony Cheung explores the agenda for Hong Kong – sweeping electoral reforms to ensure only ‘patriots can govern city’.
Like most of the other 200 pro-Beijing politicians in the city, she has to pore over reams of documents to prepare for the lianghui or two sessions, as the annual plenary meetings of the legislature and its top political advisory body are called colloquially.
Many delegates draft their own proposals to improve governance, with the focus this time being the next five-year plan for the country. In the past, Choi’s pet causes were women’s rights and environmental protection.
“There’s no side effect or any discomfort. Some delegates were joking, asking whether it was just a glucose solution,” she quipped.
But she and the others expect few sweeteners at the March meetings. Mirroring the delegates’ vaccination, Beijing, according to sources, was preparing a rigorous political inoculation plan to tame the rebellious city down south.
SCMP Explains: The ‘two sessions’ – China’s most important political meetings of the year
The NPC is expected to pass drastic reforms that would result in “patriots governing Hong Kong” and the quashing of all alleged anti-China elements.
Overall, the changes are likely to result in ordinary Hongkongers having a less direct say in governance and lawmaking.
The revisions would also ensure the next chief executive elections – already a closed shop – does not throw up any surprises.
The starting point of the overhaul will be Hong Kong’s Election Committee, a select group of 1,200 members who get to choose the city’s leader. It comprises business elites, professionals, community leaders, district councillors, legislators and other pro-establishment politicians. The election to select the members of this committee is expected to be held in December.
Beijing views the 117 seats meant for district councillors as the most toxic segment of the committee. These seats are very likely to be held by the opposition, which swept 17 out of 18 councils at the 2019 municipal polls.
Sources have told the Post the central government wants to scrap all 117 district councillor seats.
The influence of Hong Kong’s wealthiest tycoons and real estate giants could also be chipped away, other sources suggested. They have long been considered kingmakers in elections for the chief executive because of their direct and indirect number of votes on the committee through proxy companies.
Beijing is also rethinking the city’s 70-member Legislative Council, with a view to scrapping its five so-called super seats, which are the only slots elected directly by voters. Only district councillors can run for these positions. They were introduced in 2012 as a concession to the opposition Democratic Party, which wanted more popularly elected lawmakers.
The central government has also been studying ways to shake up the way lawmakers are elected. Officials are especially irked that under the city’s complex proportional representation system, strident opposition figures were able to enter Legco with a relatively small share of votes.
National security law not a big enough weapon?
Critics say Beijing is exhibiting deep insecurity in wanting to overhaul a political system already stacked in its favour. Less than nine months have passed since its imposition of the far-reaching national security law to ban acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Introduced last June after months of disruptive and sometimes violent protests, the law had already dealt a heavy blow to the opposition, the camp’s supporters pointed out.
Four opposition lawmakers were ousted, prompting the mass resignations of 15 others. There were also mass arrests of opposition lawmakers and raids on activists’ offices. The actions had a chilling effect on the opposition camp, its members said.
Beijing’s liaison office chief Luo Huining stresses principle of ‘patriots governing Hong Kong’
But China watcher Song Sio-chong, a professor at Shenzhen University’s Centre for Basic Laws of Hong Kong and Macau, said the camp could still have a good year if the current system were maintained. It would probably win its traditional seats in the Election Committee, giving it around 320 votes, and also secure those of the 117 district councillors.
“If all these votes go to the opposition camp, the next pro-establishment candidate may only get about 600 votes,” Song said.
Although candidates are pre-vetted by the establishment, Beijing will have its preferred choice. The prospect of someone else becoming chief executive is a real fear for Beijing, Song said.
From Beijing’s perspective, the central government had shown restraint after Hong Kong’s 1997 return to mainland rule. “Since the handover, mainland officials repeatedly quoted the Chinese idiom that ‘well water does not mix with river water’, and Beijing rarely interfered with Hong Kong affairs,” Tian said.
To their supporters, the so-called 35-plus strategy was a peaceful and legitimate exercise of their democratic rights. Beijing saw them as crossing the Rubicon with their talk of using their hoped-for majority to block the budget and force the chief executive to step down.
“When it comes to the tenth step, we will already be holding the Chinese Communist Party and jumping off the cliff together,” Tai wrote.
Mainland experts said the 35-plus plan hardened Beijing’s resolve to crush the opposition and overhaul the political system.
“President Xi mentioned in Hong Kong in July 2017 that the central government would not allow any act that endangered national security, challenged Beijing’s power and the Basic Law’s authority, or used Hong Kong as a base to infiltrate or sabotage the mainland,” Tian said.
“When the Hong Kong government was unable to act … the central government had a responsibility to act.”
Stanley Ng Chau-pei, a local NPC deputy, said the opposition camp had brought its current predicament onto itself by repeatedly challenging Beijing’s bottom lines.
“Since the Communist Party’s 19th Congress in October 2017, Beijing has included one country, two systems as a key principle of the country’s governance,” he said.
The changes ahead and who decides who is a patriot?
Xia, head of the HKMAO, promised that the central government would communicate with the local administration and consult different sectors before initiating changes. On Sunday, he went to Shenzhen to collect views from Hong Kong leaders ahead of the lianghui.
The Post reported on February 24 that apart from overhauling the Election Committee, the five geographical constituencies in Legco polls could be broken into 18 districts along with the scrapping of the five super seats.
One key proposal is to replace the proportional representation system for the geographical constituencies with a “one vote, two seats” mechanism to allocate the 35 directly elected seats. This would improve the odds of the pro-Beijing candidates.
The other 35 Legco seats are functional constituency spots elected by different sectors that tend to give more seats to the pro-Beijing camp.
Critics have questioned why Beijing could not leave the city government to carry out its own political reform, including holding a public consultation exercise.
But Tian said changes to the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, would inevitably involve the NPC, which has power to initiate any amendment to the nation’s and the city’s constitutional documents.
Local laws such as the Chief Executive Election Ordinance would need to be amended by the city’s government to effect the changes decided by Beijing, sources said.
Currently, Annex I and II of the Basic Law specify the composition of Legco and the Election Committee respectively.
“Local legislative work needs to be done,” a source said. “It should touch on these two annexes.”
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One of the most closely watched changes will be how any new legislation defines a patriot.
Xia noted that the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had also stressed the importance of patriots in 1984 ahead of the handover talks. He had defined them as citizens who respect the Chinese nation, sincerely support China’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong, and would not harm the city’s prosperity and stability.
Xia said Deng had focused mainly on having a “patriotic heart” and being sincere. The Beijing representative said this broad definition required further explanation. He said patriots were those who: sincerely safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests; respect the fundamental system of the country and constitutional order of the city; and do one’s utmost to maintain its prosperity and stability.
Former opposition lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting, vice-chairman of the Democratic Party, said he considered himself a patriot based on Xia’s definition. Lam pointed out that the first article in his Democratic Party manifesto specified that Hong Kong is part of China and it supported the handover, even though it opposed the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown against pro-democracy activists.
“We also showed our care for the country when there were natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes, and we supported human rights and freedoms in the mainland,” Lam added. “If these were not acts of patriotism, are you saying that we must love the Communist Party to qualify?”
Lam said preserving the Communist Party’s power seemed more important to Beijing than loving the country. “Pro-Beijing delegates can have foreign passports, but they love the Communist Party. That’s what Beijing really wants,” he said.
But NPC delegate Ng Chau-pei said Xia did not say that one had to publicly declare one’s love for the Communist Party to qualify as a patriot. “No opposition party should be against its own nation, and no patriot should be excluded from the opposition,” he said.
“All Beijing wanted was that you respect your country and constitution … You can still criticise the policies of the Communist Party, but as patriots you don’t publicly reprimand it, obstruct its rule, or call for an end to its rule.”
As to the actual mechanics of determining who was a patriot, Ng noted proposals for a new institution to carry out this role. “This can be further discussed,” he said, hinting it could be on the cards.
He and others said that Xia had stressed in his speech that Beijing was not asking for political homogeneity with the impending reforms.
But Lam Cheuk-ting said few believed Xia. The reforms would make Hong Kong less vibrant, while China also risked more international opprobrium, he said.
Tian said Beijing was not the least bit bothered by such condemnation when sovereignty was involved.
“Legco used to have a small role in monitoring the government, and allowed officials to hear some public opinion. This will end,” Lam said.
“If you are just patriots who only listen to the central government and do not dare to speak your mind, you cannot represent Hong Kong people, and you won’t be recognised by Hong Kong people either.”
But Ng dismissed such worries, saying Legco would be inclusive because of people’s desire to serve their city, and despite all that had happened, the goal for universal suffrage was still enshrined in the Basic Law and there was still hope of progress if calm was restored.
“But if the atmosphere remains bad, and Beijing can see many loopholes in various systems that can be used by these activists, then the central government would definitely be much more cautious about the pace of democratic developments.”
Read more in our two sessions series.