The Hong Kong government ousted four members of the legislature after China issued the resolution this week which establishes “patriotism” to be eligible to serve in office. Fifteen of their colleagues in the legislature who also support democracy announced they would resign in solidarity. As the legislator Claudia Mo said, “Anyone they find to be politically incorrect or unpatriotic or simply not likeable to look at can be ousted.”
It is a tragic development for the democrats and the citizens who elected them. Despite constraints under Beijing ever since the handover of Hong Kong from the British in 1997, the legislature was a place where politicians could stand up for democracy and the rule of law. But with this new edict from Beijing, the legislature has turned into a trap where voices of public support for democracy could bring about legal jeopardy.
Elections have provided the peaceful outlet and leverage for resistance to the assault on the freedoms in Hong Kong. After massive protests last year forced the withdrawal of a law that would have overridden the Hong Kong judicial system by allowing extradition to the mainland, democrats won in elections where politicians who support China tend to be strong thanks to the united front tactics by Beijing. Fearing a similar result, the Hong Kong government postponed the legislative elections this year.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said a legislature that removes the opposition “is nothing to be ashamed of” and will allow bills to be passed “more efficiently.” This coincides with a declaration from Beijing that it will now impose “comprehensive rule” over Hong Kong and Macau in order to “boost” their “sense of national identity and patriotism” and “prevent and curb external forces from interfering” with their affairs, which means that Hong Kong and Macau will be governed as integral parts of China instead of as these two autonomous entities that they have been.
This new blow to Hong Kong is a shock but not a surprise. The intention of Beijing in talks with London over the territory was clear from the start. The “two systems” arrangement meant to bring Hong Kong under Communist Party sovereignty was initially devised by Deng Xiaoping to entice Taiwan to give up its independence. But Taiwan, which is protected by 100 miles of water and the United States Navy, was able to resist it.
For a time, the deal seemed to work as lawyers, politicians, and journalists maintained the rule of law and freedoms in Hong Kong. China appeared to value the benefits of civic order, especially the confidence it gave foreign investors in its financial services and courts, as well as the chance for the Communist Party elites to create and launder their wealth.
However, the demise of the “two systems” concept was inevitable. Beijing knew that freedoms for Hong Kong were a challenge to Communist Party rule over the rest of China. Once Xi Jinping embarked on his ambitions to secure control at home and project more influence across the region, the Communist Party could no longer tolerate territorial autonomy. His fear of subversion and the hostility to “constitutional values” has only intensified the historic distrust of people in the former British colony.
In 2014, there were massive protests in the streets of Hong Kong, which lasted for months after Beijing decided it would break its earlier promise to allow citizens to pick the chief executive of the territory. Police tactics which shocked the people of Hong Kong and the world at the time have since been overtaken for harsher methods. Beijing enacted the national security law in Hong Kong this year that makes the exercise of freedoms of speech and association dangerous, launched prosecutions of the top democrats, and sent political hardliners to key city posts.
The administration has accurately claimed that the United States can no longer consider Hong Kong autonomous under a 1992 federal law. It has moved to sanction both territory and mainland officials. Washington and its allies should work on generous visa provisions for the people of Hong Kong and an extension of support to those who stay back.
While the prospect for any rollback of control over Hong Kong is small, it should not mean that Western countries stop trying to combat mainland influence in Hong Kong or to understand how Beijing vastly transformed the territory police in such a short time. Washington and London owe the people of Hong Kong that much. However, if there is any realistic hope of gaining ground, it cannot be absent a true challenge to Beijing itself. The days of true autonomy in Hong Kong are most certainly over until a more liberal and democratic government can rise up in China.
Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar with American Enterprise Institute. Ellen Bork is a contributing editor for American Purpose and former Capitol Hill staffer who worked on Hong Kong in a number of foreign policy positions.