The start of a more authoritarian era

Why should anyone care that the Chinese government recently made drastic changes to the already undemocratic way in which Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and members of its legislature are chosen? As scholars of protest patterns and repressive actions, we feel these changes represent a devastating development. Changes in rules related to voting, vetting candidates, and apportioning legislative seats in a city that was never fully democratic could seem less alarming than more dramatic actions to curtail liberties in Hong Kong. But they are arguably just as threatening to the region’s political future.

Listening to the people

One way to appreciate the significance of the changes is to consider the long-standing tradition of ‘democracy with Chinese characteristics’. The concept is expressed as a pair of characters that are commonly rendered in English as ‘democracy’ but stand for more than just electoral campaigns, voting, and other aspects of institutionalised politics. In Cantonese, the characters are pronounced manzyu and on their own they mean ‘people’ and ‘rule’. Manzyu can suggest a system in which those who zyu (rule) listen to and provide for the man (people). Crucial to such responsive governance are mechanisms of accountability, which include more than simply voicing opposition though elections. Rulers can be responsive in different ways, such as listening to protest slogans, reading petitions, and engaging in dialogue with representatives of social groups.

Under a hybrid regime that combines elements of liberal and illiberal institutions, Hong Kong citizens have forced one Chief Executive to step down before his term had ended and another one to decide against running for ‘re-selection’ in 2017. Popular protests have also compelled local officials — who were in part trying to show that they were willing to listen to the man and stay in power — to withdraw proposals in 2003 and 2012 when it became clear how disliked their plans were. In 2003, Beijing wanted the Hong Kong government to pass a law on national security and sedition. The proposal was withdrawn after protests. The same thing happened in 2012 when students led a struggle against the introduction of mainland-style patriotic education into local schools.

With Beijing’s new electoral rules, and the quashing of protest and other forms of opposition since last summer, it is less likely that a future Hong Kong Chief Executive will face the threat of removal by popular opposition. The zyu can now rule without much worry about how the man will respond. There is less political space now for the creation of movements like those of 2003 and 2012. Many of the leaders of those movements, as well as key participants in the big protest surges of 2014 and 2019, are now incarcerated or in exile.

A sketch of past electoral practices shows how the latest rules fit into the larger story of the manzyu phenomenon in Hong Kong. Deciding who occupies the top spot in the government has always been more a process of selection than election. Colonial Governors were appointed by the British Parliament without anyone in Hong Kong having a say. Since the 1997 Handover that made Hong Kong a Special Administrative Region of China, Chief Executives have been voted into office by an Election Committee comprising 1,200 members, nearly all of them pre-approved by Beijing. The list of candidates similarly needed Beijing’s approval.

Under Hong Kong’s 1990 Basic Law (the closest thing the city has to a Constitution), the Chief Executive enjoys broad powers, but the legislature (Legislative Council, or Legco) holds a key check on executive power through a provision that forces a Chief Executive to step down under certain conditions: generally, when he or she cannot muster sufficient legislative support on budgetary or “other important bills”. While this contingency was always remote since it entailed snap elections and a new Legco’s continued opposition to a bill, the recent electoral changes now virtually rule out such a scenario. There were always blocks of Legco seats that were effectively controlled by the pro-Beijing establishment. Now there are significantly more.

New rules

The new arrangement shrinks the number of directly elected seats in Legco from 35 (half of the current 70) to 20, or less than one-quarter of the 90 seats in the expanded legislature. The other 70 seats will be split between 30 representatives elected from professions and occupations, and an astonishing 40 ‘representatives’ will be chosen by the same Election Committee — now with 1,500 members — that selects the Chief Executive. And just to be on the safe side, anyone who files to run for the legislature must be pre-screened by the Hong Kong government to ensure they possess sufficient ‘patriotic’ credentials. Non-patriots (e.g., critics of Beijing) need not apply. Even Hong Kong’s courts — once bastions in protections of political speech — are unlikely to help, since there is no recourse to appeal to them when one’s candidate application is denied on patriotism grounds. Being able to remove the Chief Executive was not the only manzyu feature of the old Legco; having a shot at close to half the seats also meant that opposition forces could temporarily block unpopular measures, which gave organisers time to ramp up street actions.

It has always been clear that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would be able to prevent anyone it didn’t feel it could work with from becoming Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. But the new rules have changed the ‘card game’ from one in which the deck was stacked against pro-democracy forces to one in which ‘the house’ will always win — not just after a few draws from the deck but from the opening hand. Beijing has also made moves to make activities relating to Legco politics similarly stripped of the play of chance.

Beyond elections, the new rules also matter because they fit into a broader assault on values and processes that have long set Hong Kong apart from cities on the mainland. It has been a political setting in which expressions of dissenting views had a clear place, both during the quickly liberalising final years of colonial rule and from the Handover until last year. These views could be voiced at most points not only in electoral politics or marches but also in annual political rituals and satire that flagged differences from the mainland. Now, though, marches that were once considered legal are routinely banned. The popular television show, Headliner, which aired comic sketches that mocked the policies of the colonial Governor before, and of the Chief Executive after 1997, has been pulled from the air waves. Student organisations are under pressure to curtail criticisms of the CCP and the Hong Kong government. Students are not permitted to put up critical placards on campus bulletin boards called ‘Manzyu Walls’. All of these herald the arrival of a more authoritarian and less responsive era, in which the man of Hong Kong will continue to find ways to voice resistance but will have to do so in subtler ways. And in which there is less distance or contrast than ever between the zyu in Hong Kong and the far more powerful rulers in Beijing.

Mark Frazier is a Professor of Politics and Co-Director of the India China Institute at the New School; Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a Professor of History at the University of California Irvine

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 7:58:44 AM |

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