In 1997, the British government handed over the control of Hong Kong to China. It thus became a Special Administrative Region in China, mainly free to manage its affairs on its own, based on the ‘One Nation, Two Systems’ Policy developed by Deng Xiaoping himself.
It also guaranteed to the people of Hong Kong freedom of expression, press, religion, and assembly; continuation of the Capitalist system of economy, and the freedom to elect its leader based on universal suffrage.
However, ever since, China has curtailed these freedoms and resisted the efforts to allow Hong Kong’s democracy to function and has repeatedly suppressed the democratic movement in Hong Kong, almost ruthlessly in recent times.
Brief History of the Democratic Movement in Hong Kong
For a region of about 400 sq. miles, Hong Kong has seen way more than its share of protests.
The Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, was promulgated in 1990, proposing the ultimate aim to be electing the Chief Executive of the town based on universal suffrage. However, it was not followed in letter and spirit and became a significant reason for the democratic movement.
The city also saw a series of protests in the early years of the 21st century. In 2004, China announced that it ruled out direct elections for electing both the Chief Executive and the members of the Legislature, which were both set to change in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
Therefore, as many as 4,50,000 protestors gathered to protest against this and put forward their demand for universal suffrage.
The Umbrella Movement
In 2012, many students protested against Beijing’s decision to allow only those candidates to run for the post of Chief Executive approved by a nominating committee sympathetic to China.
Beijing retaliated by arresting those students en masse, prompting many more protestors to join. These were dealt with more harshly by the police using tear gas.
This galvanised yet more protestors who now started using a ‘Yellow Umbrella’ to form the numbers’ 2012′, which came to be known as the ‘Umbrella Movement’.
Chinese Crackdown on Democracy in Hong Kong
Hong Kong last went to the polls in 2019, when the District Council elections were held. It recorded a turnout of 71%, the highest turnout ever recorded in the city, amidst intense pro-democracy protests.
Pro-democracy candidates won a marvellous victory, strengthening the demand for universal suffrage. But this proved to be a catastrophe for Hong Kong, whose political world, since then, has been turned upside-down.
It first introduced a National Security Law in 2020. It gives mainland China unprecedented, wide-ranging powers with the jurisdiction of China and not Hong Kong in many cases, secret trials even without a jury and the formation of a new national security agency in the city.
White Paper on Democracy
“Democracy is flourishing in Hong Kong” – these are the words used in a white paper recently released by the Chinese government, suggesting a strange definition of democracy.
Since 1997, this is only the second white paper released on political developments in Hong Kong.
In this document, the Communist Party of China has claimed that it has developed “whole-process people’s democracy” in Hong Kong. This term was used by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019.
The paper dig at the ‘Democracy Summit’ called by US President Joe Biden, for which China was not invited. It claimed that Beijing does not duplicate democratic models of the West but creates its own.
Patriots Run Hong Kong Campaign
Under this campaign, the electoral system in Hong Kong has been completely overhauled.
A new system has been introduced. This has reduced the proportion of directly elected legislators in the legislative assembly from 53% to 22%. This effectively makes it impossible for the pro-democracy candidates to get a majority.
Moreover, all the candidates are vetted to ensure that only “patriots” will be elected in the assembly.
The election committee which appoints the Chief Executive has been restructured. It can select the top official in the city only from a shortlist approved by Beijing. It now has an overwhelming power to fill 40 of the 90 members in the legislative assembly with its own members. This committee comprises 1,500 individuals chosen by less than 5,000 eligible voters.
Legislative Assembly Elections 2021
These elections, originally to be held in 2020, were held under the new electoral system brought by China. Unsurprisingly, candidates supporting the mainland won 89 of the 90 seats. The voter turnout was 30% – a record low – way lower than the 58% turnout in 2016.
The city government tried hard to persuade the people to vote, making public transport accessible on election day. But the people displayed their disappointment by giving a record low turnout.
Without virtually any opposition in the Legislature, the government can now pass any law it pleases to introduce.
Internationally, the G7 nations have expressed their concerns about the erosion of democratic values in Hong Kong after the new system of elections in the city and have criticised the vetting system as severely restricting the choice of candidates’ preferences.
2021 – A Year of Destruction of Democracy in Hong Kong
As 2021 ended, so did any few traces of the democratic movement in Hong Kong. Hundreds of pro-democracy advocates have been arrested under the new National Security Act of 2020. Many contesting the legislative assembly elections were vetted out as non-patriots.
Many pro-democracy protesters and activists have fled the country in fear of antagonising the Chinese government. As a result, monuments commemorating the 1989 protests of Tiananmen Square have been taken down throughout the city.
Moreover, Hong Kong’s largest independent trade union and the Teachers Union were disbanded in 2021. In addition, the Civil Human Rights Front, which had organised a few of the most prominent pro-democracy protests, was dissolved.
Rather than being independent and impartial institutions enforcing the rule of law, the city police and courts have become Chinese control tools.
Suppression of Media
The repression of independent media has been intense and ruthless. It started with the closure of Apple Daily, a feisty and independent tabloid in the city.
In December, an independent and pro-democracy news website Stand News was raided. Several of its top employees were arrested, forcing the site to be taken down soon.
All this has made even the small, independent pro-democracy news organisations stop publishing in fears of the safety of their staff.
The subservience of Pro-democracy District Councillors
The government has also started targeting the pro-democracy District Councillors that won in 2019. Thus, has effectively buried the last vestige of democracy in the city.
It has introduced an oath of allegiance these councillors have to take to the government of China. However, it has not informed the councillors of the consequences of breaching the oath. However, the pro-Beijing news outlets in the city have stated that councillors breaching the commitment can be targeted by the Chinese government, presumably under the National Security Law of 2020.
Many pro-democracy District Councillors have said that the government is unwilling to work with them even on apolitical matters affecting the general public. As a result, many of them have resigned, crippling the governance in those councils.
When it was handed over to China, Hong Kong had a robust political system that allowed for a vibrant democracy to flourish with the active participation of the people and a robust civil society.
However, considering the larger geopolitical picture and the domestic situation over Taiwan, Tibet, and Hong Kong, the Chinese government has intended to subdue all domestic demands for autonomy or independence.
Unfortunately, this has dealt a death blow to the democratic movement in Hong Kong.
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About the Author:
Apart from being a percussionist and a cricket enthusiast, it’s the unfolding tumultuous events of Geopolitics and International Relations that give Ayush the adrenaline rush he craves for. So naturally, he is pursuing his Master of Arts in International Relations and Strategic Studies from the University of Mumbai. He also loves to analyse and discuss the socio-political issues in India. He has a burning desire to make the citizens of India more aware and informative on various matters concerning them.