Ask the Experts: Has Democracy in Hong Kong come to an end?
A genuine democracy is more than just elections of state officials by popular vote. It requires true competition with opposition parties, free and fair electoral processes, alongside the rule of law that safeguards civil liberties. The newly-introduced electoral reform in Hong Kong, which was imposed by Beijing in March 2021, works completely in the opposite way. Before the electoral reform, directly-elected seats in the Legislative Council (LC) enjoyed an equal share with the seats under “functional constituencies”, which refers to a corporatist system that is constituted by industrial, commercial and professional sectors. Under the new electoral system, the number of LC seats increased from 70 to 90, but only 20 seats are directly-elected. The sharp decline of seats returned by popular vote is contrasted with the rise of a state-dominated electoral college. 30 seats are returned by functional constituencies and 40 seats are constituted by representatives from the “Election Committee” (EC). EC is a small electoral college of 1,500 representatives. Under the new reform, Beijing enjoys almost full control of the electoral outcome. EC was designed to elect the city’s Chief Executive. However, the new reform empowers EC to play a significant role in LC with the power to vet private bills.
The new electoral reform not only undermines popular mandate in the legislature, but also weakens the checks and balances from the opposition camp and the judiciary. A new “candidate eligibility review committee (CERC) is created to decide who can run for elections, ensuring “patriots ruling Hong Kong”. However, the reviewing process will depend heavily on the new national security regime imposed by Beijing a year ago. CERC will validate nominations of candidates on the basis of opinions of the Committee for Safeguarding National Security (CSNS), where the Beijing-appointed National Security Advisor exercises authority to oversee CSNS’s work. The National Security Department of the Hong Kong Police Force will also engage in the screening process by investigating the political background of candidates. Worse still, unlike previous practice where the courts enjoy full jurisdiction to review election petitions, the electoral reform declares that any nomination decisions made by CERC are not subject to judicial review. The vigorous attempt to kick out “unpatriotic” candidates and the weakening of the court in ensuring electoral integrity certainly prohibit dissent from running for elections.
Although Beijing repeatedly claims that the new electoral system welcomes participation from the “loyal opposition”, only political puppets under the “united front” of the Chinese Communist Party will be given a chance to play the game. Bearing in mind the mass prosecution of 47 pro-democracy activists who were charged with subversion under the national security law for just engaging in primary elections for the pending Legislative Council election in 2020, it is hard to see how genuine believers of democracy can be enthused in electoral politics that would bring them legal and criminal consequences.
This process of power centralisation will lead to a more irresponsive governance in Hong Kong. The absence of genuine opposition and the total control of the legislature by Beijing means that the government can pass any law with no regard to public opinion. In light of the government insistence on passing amendments to the immigration law despite public rejection last month, and the business group’s appeal against a proposed legislation blocking public access to private company information being ignored by the authorities, it is foreseeable that the worst is yet to come. Undoubtedly, the electoral reform is a blow to both Hong Kong’s democratic development and the rule of law, which serve as cornerstones to the city’s global financial and economic status. The people’s fight for democratisation in Hong Kong is now reversed to a resistance against further autocratisation. The struggle has a long way to go.
(This article is written for LSE IDEA's China Foresight, dated on 26 May 2021, available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/cff/2021/05/26/ask-the-experts-has-democracy-in-hong-kong-come-to-an-end/ )