Five months after China imposed an oppressive national security law on Hong Kong, any hope this would not be followed by a creeping crackdown is gone. The city government this week ousted four pro-democracy lawmakers from its legislative council, or de facto parliament, after Beijing’s top legislative body gave it the power to remove “unpatriotic” politicians without going through the courts. Some 15 remaining opposition lawmakers in the 70-member body resigned in protest. Having in effect dismantled the “one country, two systems” model Hong Kong was promised in 1997, China no longer seems bothered with keeping even an appearance of democracy.
The National People’s Congress Standing Committee said on Wednesday lawmakers could be disqualified who promoted or supported Hong Kong’s independence or declined to recognise Chinese sovereignty. Anyone who sought help from foreign countries to interfere in the territory’s affairs or committed other acts endangering national security could also be barred.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, had earlier hinted all sitting lawmakers could continue in the Legco until new elections in 2021. This week she changed tack on the four opposition members — prompting speculation in Hong Kong over whether she was under orders from Beijing.
The disqualification of democratically elected politicians follows a noticeable tightening of China’s grip. Teachers are being targeted for sending messages Beijing dislikes. Some journalists have been arrested. Pro-Beijing papers have gone after judges deemed too lenient to participants in last year’s pro-democracy protests. Chinese authorities have denied the separation of powers in Hong Kong — calling into question the judicial independence that is vital to its role as a financial hub.
Beijing’s heavy-handed approach suggests insecurity that demonstrations in Hong Kong could spread to the mainland. But it reflects, too, the public assertiveness of President Xi Jinping that China’s model is an effective alternative to flawed western democracy.
It is unclear if the lawmakers’ disqualification was timed to send a message to an incoming Biden administration, or to exploit the distraction caused by a transition of US power. It comes with many western countries preoccupied by new waves of coronavirus. As China seeks to reorder the multilateral system, however, it is vital for democracies to hold Beijing to account for trampling on commitments to preserve Hong Kong’s freedoms after the handover from British rule.
The UK has rightly opened a pathway to citizenship for up to 3m Hong Kongers, but has a moral responsibility to go further. The US could extend sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act against Chinese officials involved in the clampdown in the territory. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act permits the US to revoke the special trade status it grants to Hong Kong if China is found to have removed the city’s autonomy. Hong Kong activists have said special status should only be removed in stages as the economic damage would hurt citizens. But signals that president-elect Joe Biden is prepared to consider such steps would send Beijing a warning.
Businesses, too, should be ready to speak out against actions that damage the legal and democratic safeguards that attracted them to use Hong Kong as a bridge to the Chinese mainland. Joshua Wong, a democracy activist, last year called Hong Kong the “new Berlin in a new cold war”. The city was then akin to democratic West Berlin. Over the past year, China has turned it into something closer to East Berlin.
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