Anxious to establish a new world order with China at its center, Beijing is now coining new definitions for time-tested values and attributes to suit its selfish goal. In Tibet, for instance, it has come up with a call to develop Buddhism with Chinese communist characteristics. And in Hong Kong, coinciding with the election to the Legislative Council (LegCo) in the specially administered island territory, Beijing wants to promote “democracy with Hong Kong characteristics.”
In reality, this is turning the conventional idea of democracy upside down. This means denying the people of Hong Kong their right to nominate their preferred candidates and packing the LegCo with “patriots” who would only obey the diktats of the Communist Party of China.
The LegCo election in Hong Kong on Dec. 19, 2021, was just a mockery of democracy. With only about 30% of the voters in Hong Kong bothering to exercise their franchise in a sham called election, pro-Beijing candidates swept the polls, beating the moderates and independents, leaving only one seat to an opposition member in the 90 seat Legislative Council.
Quite predictably, the Western democracies — among them Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States — have expressed concern over the election results in Hong Kong where, as a former British territory, the people are used to liberal democratic traditions. The text of the joint statement issued by these countries, as released by the White House Press Secretary, says: “We, the Foreign Ministers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom and the United States Secretary of State, noting the outcome of the Legislative Council elections in Hong Kong, express our grave concern over the erosion of democratic elements of the Special Administrative Region’s electoral system” and over “actions that undermine Hong Kong’s rights, freedoms and high degree of autonomy.”
Going into the crux of the issue, the joint statement, issued on Dec. 20, 2021, says since the handover of the administration from the British to the Chinese authorities, candidates with diverse political views have contested elections in Hong Kong. “Yesterday’s election has reversed this trend. The overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system introduced earlier this year reduced the number of directly elected seats. It established a new vetting process to severely restrict the choice of candidates on the ballot paper. These changes eliminated any meaningful political opposition. Many of the city’s opposition politicians remain in prison pending trial, with others in exile overseas.”
The stage for such a mockery of an election had been set earlier in 2021, with the National People’s Congress of China imposing on the people of Hong Kong sweeping political reforms to deny them the right to elect candidates of their choice in the LegCo.
The essence of the electoral reforms introduced by Beijing in March 2021 has been summarized succinctly in a Reuters report as “the biggest overhaul of its (Hong Kong’s) political system in the quarter-century since British rule to assert Beijing’s authority over the autonomous city.” The change has reduced the proportion of seats in the legislature filled by direct election from half to less than a quarter. A new body is empowered to vet candidates and bar those deemed insufficiently patriotic toward China from standing. “The 600-or-so pages of the legislation come down to just a few words: patriots ruling Hong Kong.”
This was done to increase the size of the legislature to 90 from the earlier 70 before the election to the seventh LegCo. At the same time, the number of seats filled by direct election was reduced to 20 from the earlier 35. While the proportion of lawmakers who could be directly voted by the people was thus decreased drastically from the earlier 50% to about 22%, nearly half the legislative seats, 40 of them, were given to a pro-Beijing electoral college called Election Committee to fill up.
The rest of the seats were given to special interest groups called Functional Constituencies, like business and trade, which had historic leanings towards Beijing, to fill up. A special screening committee was formed to vet the candidates for their patriotic bona fides.
Earlier, in the sixth LegCo, of the 70 seats, 35 members were chosen through direct elections by geographical constituencies while the functional constituencies voted the other 35 members, representing different sections of the community.
The special screening committee, the vetting of which a candidate must obtain to contest, has also put severe restrictions on the people to contest in elections. Candidates are now required to get at least two nominations from the Hong Kong representatives of the National People’s Congress or the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and be approved by the Eligibility Review Committee, chaired by the chief secretary of the government before running for LegCo seats.
An analysis by BBC of the results of the LegCo election held in December 2021 says that 82 of the 90 seats were won by members of the pro-establishment and pro-Beijing camp. Only one candidate was from a nonestablishment camp, and the rest had unknown political backgrounds.
Incredibly, the authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have branded the electoral reforms brought about in the special administrative region of China as an “improved system.” Clearly, it suits Beijing’s definition of the Chinese form of democracy. Any person in one’s right sense would not, however, describe the LegCo election in Hong Kong as a democratic exercise as only about 30% of the 4.5 million registered voters — almost about 1.5 million of them — exercised their franchise. BBC reported wide apathy in the polling process, with many voters taking advantage of free public transport available during the day to ensure a higher turnout and going out for a day’s outing. The AFP quoted a woman on the day of polling, saying: “My vote won’t mean anything because ultimately it’s Beijing’s people winning.”
The low turnout in the polling process is all the more significant because, under the new election laws in Hong Kong, incitement to boycott the voting or cast invalid votes could be punished by up to three years in jail or a fine of $26,500.
LegCo, the mini-parliament of Hong Kong, is, however, a powerful body that makes and amends laws in the city. The pro-Beijing LegCo has already started making its presence felt in the island city. Days after the declaration of the election results, a famous statue at the University of Hong Kong marking the Tiananmen Square massacre — aptly dubbed the “statue of shame” — was removed late in one evening. Reporters trying to reach the spot or film the process were debarred by security personnel. The copper statue that was there for 24 years depicted piled-up corpses, signifying the massacre of thousands of protesting Chinese students demanding democracy and freedom. Many people, including human rights groups, assembled and protested against the statue’s removal.
The other has been the attack on the freedom of the media. On Dec. 29, 2021, Stand News, a vocal pro-democracy website in Hong Kong, was forced to shut down after the police raided its office and arrested six current and former editors and board members in a crackdown. More than 200 police officers took part in the swoop on the website. Stand News said in a statement that its website and social media were no longer being updated and would be taken down. The employees were dismissed. Since the forcible closing down of the Apple Daily newspaper, Stand News was one of the last remaining openly critical voices in Hong Kong.
This is how The Associated Press summarized the situation in Hong Kong as 2021 drew to a close: “Activists have fled abroad or been locked up under a draconian new National Security Law imposed on the city. Opposition voices have been driven out of the legislature. Monuments commemorating China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing in 1989 have been taken down; and a vocal pro-democracy media outlet closed following a police raid.”
To recall briefly the situation in Tibet, Buddhism has been suppressed forcibly in the plateau. More than 150 monks and nuns have died, setting themselves on fire in protest against the assault on their religious faith. If this is what is meant by Sinicizing time-tested religious faiths like Buddhism, which is one of the most peaceful of faiths, with one of the largest numbers of followers globally, and has existed for more than 2,500 years, or liberal democracy, the most cherished of human values since the French Revolution, then it is time the world should beware of the existential threat of China to derail the course of the civilization of humanity.
• Jianli Yang is the founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China and the author of “For Us, The Living: A Journey to Shine the Light on Truth.”