Analysis Politics

The hollowing out of Hong Kong

Rachael Ward examines the political implications of the Basic Law amendment

Article Thumbnail

Image Credit: Alex Leung

A law with unanimous support has been heralded with uniform applause. Amid domestic legislation, budgets and China's fourteenth year plan, this law asserts that only ‘patriots’ can stand for election in Hong Kong. As China slipped in a last-minute amendment to Hong Kong’s mini constitution, the National People’s Congress greeted the silent legislature with applause, while watchers of the world awoke to the reality that the theft of Hong Kong’s identity really was just one constitutional tweak away.

‘Theft’ neatly surmises this act of political robbery. What began with the occasional pinching of rights and pocketing of autonomy has amounted to an outright seizure of independence. This downward trajectory of democratic rights characterises Hong Kong’s existence under the “one country, two systems” principle, which began in 1997, when Britain handed control of its former colony back over to China. This handover coined a bespoke bargain which required Hong Kong to retain some of the democratic rights that Chinese natives do not enjoy. Despite agreement that the deal would live on for 50 years, the disappointment of its demise has come 25 years too early.

Since then, the world has witnessed the dwindling democracy wither away into a dwarfed version of its former self.

As China’s National People’s Congress congregated for the annual “two sessions” political gathering, the almost 3000 delegates enthusiastically nodded through an amendment to Hong Kong’s mini constitution, the Basic Law. This motion of political machinery conformed to the pervasive tune of the Communist Party, bar one mere abstention.

The final stamp to flatten Hong Kong’s autonomy ensures that only ‘patriots’ are eligible to stand for its parliament. The term’s flexible ambiguity is intentional, and  President Xi Jinping’s constitutional tinkering was welcomed with a standing ovation. The amendment outlaws any opponents to Beijing from sitting in Hong Kong’s Parliament, with the particular opponents at the forefront of Xi Jinping’s mind being his pro-democracy enemies.

The advent of new powers gives Hong Kong’s overseers the ability to “directly participate in the nomination of all legislative council members” and “establish a qualification vetting system for the whole process”. As candidates flow through the Chinese ‘filtration machine’, it is extremely likely that Hong Kong’s legislature will churn out a sanitised pro-Beijing ‘representative’ body.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has rallied under the banner of protecting the city from “unpatriotic people”. Li Keqiang, a premier for the People’s Republic of China, has equally celebrated the new legislation for ensuring “the administration of Hong Kong by Hong Kong people with patriots as the main body”. However, the disparity between rhetoric and reality is unmissable.

The particularities of the legislation are thus far unknown. If the saying holds true that the devil is in the detail, Hong Kong should brace themselves as the worst may be yet to come. The amendment has revealed that an extra 20 seats will be added to the 70 seat Legislature. It remains uncertain where these seats will come from but, one can make a pretty good guess of who will be occupying them.

The feud between China’s administration and the pro-democracy activists has been gathering pace since explosive demonstrations against Chinese crackdowns harnessed momentum in recent years. The silencing of opposition has since been sealed by new national security laws, with these laws casting any form of protest or secession under the umbrella of terrorism, punishable by life imprisonment. To top off this curtailment of liberties, the interpretation of law has come under the sole jurisdiction of Beijing. In essence, juridical independence in Hong Kong exists in name only.

Foreign forces have been lining up to denounce this democratic infringement. International observers have clearly mastered the rhetoric. Yet their condemnations seldom dilute the spiralling democratic disaster.

US criticism has so far been the firmest. Verbal distaste from the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, has seeped from the congressional chambers. The US proposes the continuation of sanctions against its fierce competitor and are pitching a hard line against China’s autocratic move.

Meanwhile the EU’s stance against the new laws does not quite match the rigour of US action. The EU have got their pens at the ready to sign off a long-awaited investment treaty with China. Hong Kong’s activists are pleading with the EU to halt the ratification of the deal. But, these appeals are drowned out by the anticipation of closer economic ties with China being just a signature stroke away.

The UK’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, was not far off when he condemned the legislation as “hollowing out the space for democratic debate”. Most certainly the democratic arena is being picked apart, piece by piece, amendment by amendment. But without democratic debate, are we witnessing the hollowing out of Hong Kong altogether?

As Hong Kong becomes an echo of the Chinese state, the absence of democracy threatens the identity of Hong Kong.

Latest in Analysis