Major changes to Hong Kong’s election laws are expected to be introduced this week as senior officials gather in Beijing for the annual meeting of the Chinese parliament.
The “two sessions,” as they are called in Chinese, include the largely ceremonial meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference which meets on March 4, followed by the more powerful National People’s Congress, which begins the next day.
Delayed by COVID-19, last year’s event took place in May and saw the adoption of radical national security legislation for Hong Kong, which was called necessary to “restore stability” following the mass protests in 2019, but which has led to a swift crackdown on the territory’s pro-democracy movement, including elected officials, since it was imposed on June 30 of last year.
Sunday, Hong Kong indicted 47 democracy activists with “subversion” for organizing and participating in an unofficial primary to help the pro-democracy camp choose its best candidates for the city’s semi-democratic legislature, which was later delayed.
Media mogul Jimmy Lai is also in detention awaiting trial on national security charges for “collusion with foreign forces” when in November four pro-democracy lawmakers were disqualified from his duties and accused of “endangering national security”.
But more arrests and disqualifications are expected in the wake of the NPC fallout, which is expected to bring more political change to the former British colony.
“Last year we saw Beijing use some of the global distraction caused by the pandemic to settle scores on different fronts and try to punish figures who have interfered with their efforts to gradually bring Hong Kong closer to mainland cities. Said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor of Chinese history at the University of California at Irvine and author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink.
“One of the reasons this is all so scary is that it suggests that in Beijing’s opinion now there is no tolerance for even moderate actions and they want to limit the same space as much as possible. for non-violent expressions of opinion, ”he said. .
Hints of what is to come have already been released in recent weeks by Xia Baolong, Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong and Macau, who said in recent speeches that only “patriots” should rule the former British colony. , then dubbed with a seminar on the subject in Shenzhen, according to Chinese state media.
Other signals came from interviews in state media with leading figures who called on Hong Kong to close election “loopholes,” said Julia G Bowie, editor of the Party Watch Initiative at the Center for Advanced China Research, based in Washington, DC.
“The central argument is that ‘loopholes’ in the electoral system have allowed people who are not patriots to take elected positions in Hong Kong, sometimes in collusion with foreign anti-Chinese forces,” Bowie said. .
“Xia Baolong has set standards for assessing who is a patriot, which I hope will form the basis of an assessment system to disqualify applicants deemed unpatriotic. It’s easy to see how these rather nebulous standards could be used to disqualify anyone deemed hostile to central government.
With the Hong Kong Legislative Council election now scheduled for September, after a year of delay due to COVID-19, Beijing may be hoping to avoid the embarrassment of the November 2019 district council elections, which were largely overdue. considered a referendum of support for the democratic movement after months of sometimes violent protests.
“In terms of elections, it is important to note that, as limited as Hong Kong’s democratic institutions have always been – and they were very weak before the [1997 UK] transfer and were never robust – the elections allowed candidates to raise issues and sometimes voters to express their dissatisfaction with the authorities and their support for the movements, ”said Wasserstrom.
“The district council election in November 2019 was a landslide for pro-democracy candidates, although Beijing hoped, and its local officials hoped, that the fact that some protesters engaged in violent actions would alienate the voters of the movement. Likewise, the latest wave of arrests largely targeted people involved in a popular primary election, who voted no one for the election but provided a symbolic venue for people to voice their displeasure with the status quo. “, did he declare.
Pro-democracy candidates have long had every chance of winning, as only part of the Hong Kong legislature is chosen by popular vote. The CEO, Hong Kong’s top executive, is also selected by a committee of just 1,200 people, with the choice limited only to those approved by Beijing.
In recent weeks, the authorities have redoubled their pledges of allegiance to the state and introduced national security courses for all schoolchildren, starting at the primary level.
In late January, Hong Kong’s 180,000 civil servants had a month to sign an oath of allegiance to Hong Kong, while a bill coming to the legislature would bar lawmakers and district councilors from electing for five years. ‘they violate the city’s mini-constitution or fail to properly swear their pledge of allegiance.
“If a requirement is introduced that anyone running for an election at any level in Hong Kong must endorse the position that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of the PRC, then the CCP’s control over Hong Kong will tighten further. Said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Only pro-Beijing candidates will be allowed to stand for election.”
Fight against poverty
Despite the rents in Hong Kong, one of AFN’s main goals in China will be to celebrate the country’s so-called “victory over extreme poverty.” announced by President Xi Jinping Last week.
Although this is a long-term goal of the Communist Party of China, Xi’s “victory” comes with added political weight after China’s difficult year of fighting COVID-19 and international hostility for its policy towards Hong Kong and the Muslim minorities in western China. Relations with the United States also remain precarious even with the departure of Donald Trump and the election of Joe Biden as new president.
“Xi has set this as a goal and therefore, he must and ‘achieved’ it, even though the basic concept that poverty, a relative concept, can be eradicated is intellectually unfounded,” said Steve Tsang, director of SOAS China Institute. London.
“Economic performance or the ability to offer a ‘better tomorrow’ to most Chinese in return for joining and supporting the Party’s monopoly power has been in place since the Beijing massacre in 1989,” he said. he stated, referring to the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen. Square.
The two sessions will also adopt China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, outlining the country’s economic and social goals through 2025.
The plan is also expected to detail how China plans to achieve peak carbon by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060, a goal Xi announced last fall that aims to transform China’s status as a as the world’s largest consumer and producer of coal.
Experts are also waiting to see whether China will set an official GDP growth target after dropping it for the first time last year as it grappled with the economic fallout from COVID-19. In 2020, the country’s economy grew only 2.3%.
With China’s success being so closely tied to its astronomical growth over the past decades, stepping away from official growth targets could be a decisive move.
“Faced with the inevitability of slower GDP growth, the CCP has for some time attempted to shift from quantitative measures of the legitimacy of performance to qualitative measures – such as tackling income inequality and pollution pollution. the environment – ”Bowie said.
“I believe the Party saw COVID-19 as an opportunity to accelerate this transition. If China gives up on announcing GDP targets again this year, it will be a signal of the regime’s confidence that its legitimacy no longer rests on meeting astronomical growth targets.