Few Fooled by Trappings of Democracy as Hong Kong Election Approaches
Hongkongers will be lining up to vote for the next Legislative Council (LegCo) on 19 December 2021 in the first election since the city came under increased Chinese control in 2019. Drastic changes to the city’s election process earlier this year have introduced voting reforms carefully orchestrated to remove legitimate opposition from parliament and replace them with pro-Beijing ‘patriots’. The election is already facing criticism for conferring legitimacy on Chinese authoritarianism as a crucial step in maintaining control over the territory. The outcome of the election will be telling, however, the erosion of the “one country, two systems” system combined with President Xi Jingping’s “total hostility to democratic accountability” leaves little hope for a legitimate result.
Beijing’s overhaul of the electoral system in May 2021 drastically reduced the number of seats up for grabs. Only 20 out of 90 (22%) available seats are now directly elected by Hong Kong residents, down from the previous 35 out of 70 (50%) seats. The remaining seats will be chosen from a mix of trade-based functional constituencies and an Election Committee packed full of pro-establishment figures. The Election Committee formally played a minor role in the election process, tasked with choosing Hong Kong’s leader — the Chief Executive. However, their new role also involves hand picking 40 representatives and expanded power concerning screening and vetting candidates for elected positions.
In a National People’s Congress Standing Committee session held on 11 November 2020, a decision was adopted disqualifying Hong Kong legislators who “publicize or support independence.” Multiple pro-democracy candidates considered to be in the opposition camp were ousted and removed from their positions after being accused of paralysing government operations and endangering “national security”, sparking a mass resignation from legislators. This was largely viewed as a move to stifle dissent and subjugate a true democratic election, allowing Beijing to rubber stamp legislation and extend their control beyond executive bodies to the legislature.
Hong Kong’s current Chief Secretary for Administration John Lee has nonetheless praised the diversity of candidates and highlighted the fact that approximately a dozen centrists or moderates will be running, offering balanced representation. However, Lee is also vocal concerning his pro-Beijing views, going as far as to label the recent US-run Summit for Democracy a ‘political farce’. In contrast, the Democratic Party, formerly the leading pro-democracy party, has opted not to back any candidates. While they have not advocated for an outright boycott, the party has discouraged members from running in fear of retribution.
Beijing’s micromanagement is fooling no one and leaving little to chance. While some question why China is bothering to maintain the facade, the carefully orchestrated process holds a distinct purpose. Authoritarian regimes maintain power by relying on three pillars of stability — repression, co-optation and legitimation. Hong Kong has suffered an extended and unprecedented crackdown on civil liberties since 2019 in a city previously known for its progressiveness. Repressive police action followed the 2019 pro-democracy protests and subsequent 2020 controversial national security law. This election represents the next step of conferring legitimacy to a new government while co-opting recruits into positions of power that are willing to do Beijing’s bidding.
Intervention has not gone unnoticed and voters have been noticeably less interested in the electoral process in contrast to vibrant and lively campaigns leading up to previous elections. The new rules have been accompanied by redrawn electorate boundaries which suggests voters may be unaware of their new constituencies. However, pro-democracy advocates are also calling for an election boycott so as to avoid lending the vote any legitimacy. Following China’s adoption of a similar “one country, two systems” framework and legislative election in Macao that excluded pro-democracy candidates, voter turnout was recorded as the lowest in the territory’s history. If these indicators are anything to go by, low voter turnout may pose a major hindrance to Beijing’s plans for maintaining control over the city.
With the LegCo soon to be packed with pro-Beijing figures, it is inevitable the government will no longer represent the majority of citizens or serve its proper function. However, the spirit of Hong Kong citizens fighting for democracy is still very much present in the bustling city, providing hope for future generations navigating their way through a new draconian system. As China faces industrial challenges and becomes a more isolated superpower, its influence should not be overestimated. Nonetheless, Hongkongers face an uphill battle in navigating this new system and are likely to face further loss of liberties as greater power is conferred to an authoritarian government.
Chloe Marriott is currently studying a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) and a Bachelor of Global Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and has engaged in study abroad programs at the University of Leeds (United Kingdom) and Monash University Malaysia. Chloe is the Young Diplomats Society's regional correspondent for East Asia and holds a strong interest in the future of global leadership and the cultural and historical complexities of the region.