Only 'true patriots' need apply: Beijing's tough new laws turn Hong Kong's elections into selections

Beijing’s new election rules give the central government sweeping powers to eliminate those considered disloyal. Even so, this week’s crackdown on democratic rights still shocked those who opposed the measures.

Beijing’s new election rules give the central government sweeping powers to eliminate dissent

Pro-democracy activist Lee Cheuk-yan arrives at the West Kowloon Courts for verdicts in a landmark unlawful assembly case, in Hong Kong, China on Thursday. He was among seven veteran protesters found guilty of unauthorized assembly in August 2019, the latest blow to the city's beleaguered democracy movement. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

They've seen it coming for months, perhaps years, but this week's official crackdown on democratic rights by China surprised even battle-weary veterans of Hong Kong's opposition movement.

Many have been thrown in jail, including seven who were convicted on Wednesday for organizing protests in 2019.

Others, such as former opposition lawmaker Nathan Law, were forced to flee. Officially a wanted man, the 27-year-old is still considered a threat by the territory's Beijing-backed government.

"All our freedoms faded [at] a drastic speed that none of us could have expected," Law said in a Skype interview with CBC News from London, where he now lives. He counted off the  rights lost on his fingers: "freedom of speech, of association and assembly, and now elections, all gone."

WATCH | Nathan Law describes the loss of freedoms he experienced in Hong Kong:

Activist describes deterioration of democracy in Hong Kong

2 years ago
Duration 0:30
Former opposition politician Nathan Law describes the erosion of democratic rights in Hong Kong. Law, 27, was forced to flee after Beijing's crackdown.

Beijing's new election rules give the central government sweeping powers to eliminate those considered disloyal and tip votes in the Chinese Communist Party's favour even before a single ballot is cast. 

Fewer seats for democratically elected politicians

It's an effort for Hong Kong to "recover stability" and prevent the kind of popular demonstrations that swept the city in 2019, according to the territory's pro-Beijing leader, Carrie Lam. 

Those protests brought out as many as two million people from all walks of life — including some of the 300,000 Hong Kongers with Canadian citizenship. The demonstrations started out peacefully, though eventually there were smaller violent clashes between police and protesters. Any kind of political demonstration is now illegal. 

Nearly two million people flooded Hong Kong's streets during mass demonstrations in June 2019. The protesters were voicing their concern over Beijin's expanding influence and the erosion of democratic rights after Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule in 1997. (Sasa Petricic/CBC)

"To really create full stability and safety, we also need to be safe in political systems as well as political power," Lam said at a news conference on Tuesday.

The new electoral system slashes democratic representation in Hong Kong's local legislature by sharply cutting the number and proportion of seats directly chosen by voters. It also gives greater power to appointed political bodies loyal to China's central government. 

Even more restrictive, every aspiring candidate must be a "true patriot," investigated first by police officials answering to China and then vetted by a pro-Beijing review committee. Anyone the government dislikes can be barred from running without a reason, without any avenue for appeal. 

Opposition in exile

Even under the old rules, officials found reasons to kick Law out of the legislature six years ago. He says no one in opposition would ever get close to earning a seat there now.

Law was accused of using the wrong intonation while taking his oath of office; some thought it sounded as though he was questioning Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong.

Law slipped out of Hong Kong nine months ago, right after Beijing imposed a strict national security law on the territory at the end of June that makes it a crime to advocate secession from China or to carry out vaguely defined subversive or terrorist acts. The law has been used to target anyone who speaks out.

"With my backpack and small luggage in hand, I boarded my night flight," he tweeted at the time, keeping his plans secret "with my own well-being and others in mind." Law has since become a vocal advocate for Hong Kong, appearing in front of the U.S. Congress and meeting with European decision-makers.

"Hong Kong is a classic example of how democracy and freedom fade," Law said.

Hong Kong protesters and police clashed as cities worldwide prepared for rallies ahead of China's National Day on Sept 30, 2019. (Sasa Petricic/CBC)

That fade started almost from the moment Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control in 1997. At the time, Beijing gave a written commitment that the former British colony could keep its democratic rights and a certain degree of autonomy for at least 50 years under a principle China calls "One Country, Two Systems."

Quickly, however, a kind of creeping authoritarianism set in. Beijing started using Hong Kong's own respected court system to limit freedoms, sometimes on legal technicalities.

The latest electoral law changes, and the National Security Law last summer are the latest chapters. 

"It's the culmination of that process," said Alvin Cheung, a Canadian born in Hong Kong who now lives in Kingston, Ont. 

"The strategy of the Hong Kong and Beijing governments was systematically to whittle away at any form of meaningful civic and political participation."

Cheung, who is a research fellow at New York University, said without strong support from the international community, the most the pro-democracy movement could have done is "delay the encroachment of Beijing into Hong Kong's autonomy."

'It's over. The people of Hong Kong lost'

Cheung says China was too powerful and too set on quashing dissent in Hong Kong. Beijing was enraged at the protests and furious after local elections in 2019, which saw opposition candidates sweep local votes and win 17 out of 18 seats up for grabs.

"Heaven and Earth have been turned upside down," one defeated pro-Beijing candidate said at the time.

That's when the Chinese central government stepped up its efforts, determined never to have its legitimacy challenged again in the semi-autonomous territory by "doing away with the gradual democratic process," said Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"This [new election law] is a little bit of overkill, but I do believe it shows that Beijing wants to make it absolutely sure," he said in a Skype interview from Hong Kong. "I think it is already very difficult for the opposition to find somebody to be willing to run, because it is a game you are not allowed to win."

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attends a news conference on the Hong Kong electoral system reform in Hong Kong on Tuesday. China's top legislature approved amendments to Hong Kong's constitution on Tuesday giving Beijing more control over the make-up of the city's legislature. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

Several former pro-democracy activists who are now too afraid to go on the record told CBC News they don't believe their movement can recover from China's repression. 

"It's over. The people of Hong Kong lost," said one in a text message this week.

But other Hong Kongers say they don't believe the opposition movement — and the anger with China that led millions to protest and vote against Beijing's candidates — can be snuffed out by edict, no matter how draconian the legislation.

WATCH | Kevin Chong on the future of Hong Kong's democracy movement:

The future of Hong Kong's democracy movement

2 years ago
Duration 0:55
Vancouver-based writer Kevin Chong is optimistic the democratic movement in Hong Kong is not over.

Kevin Chong is a Canadian writer, born in Hong Kong, who has written about anti-Chinese feelings in the territory.

He says the "anger, resistance and resentment toward Beijing" is too strong. "I feel as though we haven't seen the last gasps of the democracy movement," he said in an interview from Vancouver. 

"There are so many young people who are inspiring in terms of how much they're willing to sacrifice in order to protect democracy and their democratic rights," he said. "Those people haven't had their hopes entirely snuffed out."

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