While much concern has been expressed about the parlous state of democracy in the United States, spare a thought for Hong Kong.
On the same day last week that the world’s attention was focused on Washington D.C., Hong Kong police undertook mass arrests of pro-democracy politicians, accusing them of subversion under a National Security Law imposed on the territory by Beijing last year. Their crime? Apparently, trying to win an election.
Last July, Hong Kong’s pan-democrat opposition parties held primary elections to decide who among them would contest elections for the city’s Legislative Council, scheduled for September. The aim was to improve their electoral prospects by coordinating their historically divided factions, and attempt to win a majority of seats in the legislature. This was unlikely – the Legislative Council, as it is called, is heavily gerrymandered in favour of pro-Beijing parties. However some pan-democrats had argued that if they could win a majority they would be able to veto government budgets and force the resignation of Beijing’s hand-picked chief executive. More than 600,000 Hong Kongers voted in the primaries to the fury of the government who denounced the vote as illegal and subversive, and threatened legal consequences for those who took part.
Now, six months later, and notwithstanding that the authorities disqualified many pro-democracy candidates from running and then cancelled the September elections altogether, they have followed through on those threats. Calling the primary election a “vicious plot” that had the aim of winning a majority of seats in the legislature and “paralysing the government”, the authorities arrested 53 pro-democracy politicians and supporters. Among those arrested were all the candidates who ran in the election, the legal academic Benny Tai who proposed the idea, the organisers (including an American lawyer in his 70s), and owners of businesses which had hosted polling stations. The government statement declared: “The Hong Kong Government will not tolerate any offence of subversion.”
Those arrested have since been released on police bail while their cases are further investigated. In the meantime, their travel documents have been confiscated to prevent them leaving Hong Kong and going into exile overseas, as many Hong Kong pro-democracy activists have already done. They may also find their bank accounts frozen. When their cases are ultimately presented before a court, they are likely to be remanded in custody awaiting trial as the National Security Law contains a presumption against bail. As a result, potentially an entire generation of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy politicians will be incarcerated pending formal hearings.
[See also: Nathan Law on the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedom]
These mass arrests are the most significant move yet in an ongoing campaign by Beijing that seems determined to stamp out the pan-democrats as a political force in Hong Kong, and indeed to destroy any form of meaningful opposition whatsoever. The scale and scope of the arrests, and the fact that they target all of the opposition election candidates, would appear to have the aim of preventing them from running in any election, whenever it is eventually held.
On Saturday, the foreign ministers of Australia, Canada, the UK and the US Secretary of State released a joint statement of “serious concern” over the arrests, calling for respect of Hong Kong’s legally guaranteed freedoms and for the postponed Legislative council elections to “proceed in a fair way that includes candidates representing a range of political opinions”. However, the fact that the arrests occurred as the US and the UK have been focused on domestic troubles, and after the European Union agreed to an historic investment pact with China, only seemed to highlight the impotence of the international community in helping the people of Hong Kong.
The European Commision has exacted no price on Xi Jinping for his handling of Hong Kong, or indeed Xinjiang, handing him his trade deal at the end of December subject to approval by the European Parliament. Meanwhile, in the US, images of mobs storming the Capitol gifted Beijing an easy propaganda win, enabling them to position the images next to those of Hong Kong protesters storming their legislature during the 2019 protests. The US under Trump has in any event lost whatever moral force it might have had in advocating for democracy and civil rights elsewhere in the world.
Meanwhile the UK, which as Hong Kong’s former coloniser and the party to an international treaty with China on the handover of Hong Kong would be the one nation with the legal and moral authority to intervene, has been exhausted by the twin (and self-inflicted) ordeals of Brexit and mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic. And after all, as China has repeatedly pointed out in its public statements, “Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong”. Even if the international community was moved to act, it seems there is little they could do to prevent Beijing acting precisely as it wishes in Hong Kong, as elsewhere in China.
It is questionable whether this week’s arrests will result in successful convictions. Legal observers have pointed out that there would not appear to be anything inherently unlawful about holding a primary vote which would render it criminal under the law. However, whether the charges are ultimately upheld is not the point. The arrests themselves achieve the authorities’ aim. The emotional, financial and physical toll of being tied up in months or even years of court cases will be a heavy one. By the time the court process has run its course, the damage to democracy and civil rights in Hong Kong will be done. Hong Kong was once an open society where criticism of the government was possible and a genuine opposition political force was tolerated, even accepted as part of the political scene. All of that has now been wiped out.
Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law, contains within its very text – drafted by Beijing and passed as a law by its own parliament, the National People’s Congress – the promise of democracy for Hong Kong. “The ultimate aim,” the Basic Law says, is for Hong Kong’s head of government and its legislature to be selected “by universal suffrage”. It is now clear that Beijing will only allow that ultimate aim for full democratisation to be realised when there is no opposition left to participate in it.
[See also: Why Hong Kong’s press remains defiant]