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The future of pan-democrats in Hong Kong

The future of pan-democrats in Hong Kong
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Much uncertainty prevails in Hong Kong following the passage of a sweeping new national security law on June 30. In the law's current form, Beijing retains the right to interpret crimes of sedition, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers, while allowing mainland operatives to bypass Hong Kong authorities and trials to be held on the mainland. Further, residents are concerned that the law is a culmination of a campaign to minimize oppositional voices and undermine the popular will. Last November’s local elections saw pan-democrats take nearly 90 percent of 342 seats with 71 percent of eligible voters supporting resistance to the authorities’ increasingly heavy-handed approach. The new law will likely squeeze the opposition and their political space further, leaving the political divide unresolved. The result: Beijing is moving further away from winning “hearts and minds” to realize a “second reunification” of Hong Kong.

From Beijing’s perspective, recolonization is the reason 23 years of partial, post-handover autonomy failed to bring the Hong Kong people closer to the mainland. It views Hong Kong’s seamless connectivity with the West as a threat to China’s stability and unity and believes that the opposition camp and foreign actors have been playing a major, malevolent role in fermenting anti-China sentiments. The 2014 umbrella movement and last year’s anti-government protests sparked by a proposed extradition bill underscore the governing crisis and challenges in implementing the “one country, two systems” model. These are further exacerbated by the precipitous decline of the cabinet’s popularity. At its core, the Hong Kong problem is political (rather than an issue of economic mobility, as many have suggested) and warrants a political solution.

To answer this “Hong Kong question,” Beijing adopted the work of Professor Zheng Yongnian of the National University of Singapore. Zheng argued for a “2nd return” to China, a policy to win over Hongkongers by ridding the city of the “political virus” represented by protesters and foreign influence and imparting patriotic values to youth.

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The sweeping national security law will mark the beginning of this overall strategy, so much so that Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, likened the national security law to “anti-virus software” that targets those pro-democracy protesters who have gone “too far.” It seems to be a winning prescription for Beijing: The national security law will provide protection from pan-dems regaining their veto power, end the governing deadlock and protect Beijing’s interests.

It is perhaps not surprising that Demosistō ceased to exist overnight upon the announcement of the national security law. Demosistō is a pro-democracy party, led by activists Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, that had lobbied for Hong Kong’s self-determination (that could include independence).

But the effect of the law on the opposition goes much deeper. This September, Hongkongers will head to the polls to pick their representatives in the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s parliament. But challenges are already brewing for pan-dems as they regroup to seek a majority in the upcoming election while navigating the unsettled landscape. 

The national security law’s provisions and ambiguity introduce hurdles that could prevent the opposition from standing in the parliamentary elections or holding their seats. Article 35 stipulates that a person who is found guilty of national security offenses will be barred from running in elections. Convicted public officials will be removed from office and banned from running for future posts. As to the period in which they will be barred and what specific acts or speeches will lead to an offense, neither the Hong Kong chief executive nor pro-Beijing advocates have been able to provide a definitive answer.

While it remains to be seen how the law will be implemented, prospective and current lawmakers who have openly opposed the imposition of the national security legislation or have used “secessionist” language in campaigns will unequivocally face heightened scrutiny and uncertainty. The resistance’s slogan "Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Times," used openly in the previous election, may now be considered illegal under the new law. That’s because it could be labeled as having “subversive intent,” according to Maria Tam, vice chairwoman of the Basic Law Committee, an advisory body on Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

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For pan-dems, localists and independents who have been on the forefront of oppositional politics, the national security law is a continuation of efforts to disqualify candidates and legislators whose loyalty to China is considered questionable. As illustrated by the high-profile eviction of the Civic Party lawmaker Dennis Kwok, the practice can seem arbitrary. For the foreseeable future, they are faced with the tough choice between being true to their ideology and maintaining a voice for their constituents at all amid increased risk of disqualification.

Given the uncertainty of the new national security law’s implementation, self-censorship runs deep across all levels of society, regardless of whether they continue resisting or not. While the number of seats in the Legislative Council is still a concern, holding onto the last trace of freedom of expression and assembly that many Hongkongers have enjoyed is even more important to them.

In many ways, Hong Kong is at the forefront of clashes between Western values and an increasingly powerful and autocratic government in Beijing. China has shown the world that it will stop at nothing to restore stability and solidify the legitimacy of the Communist Party. But it must understand that doing so at the expense of the will of the people is the surest way to lose “hearts and minds.”

Zoe Leung is the director of Track 2 Diplomacy Programs at the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S. China Relations. Originally from Hong Kong, Leung is a regular contributor to magazines and newspapers on Asia-Pacific security issues. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S. China Relations.