Democracy and Dissent in Hong Kong

Come December Hong Kong will hold its District Council elections. Missing in the fray will be Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy party. This situation has come to pass after a change in the electoral law governing participation in the elections. Lo Kin-hei, Chairperson of the Democratic Party, recently shared that he and other members of the Party could not secure enough nominations under the new laws on elections. The Hong Kong authorities have thus laid down the line that they do not want the participation of any individual or party that challenges the authority of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

Under the new rules, only 20% of seats in the District Councils will be directly elected. The rest will be filled by people appointed by the Government. Pertinently, vetting has been made mandatory for all candidates. Finally, to be able to enter the race, candidates have to secure endorsements from at least nine members of the local committees, which are usually filed with pro-government figures. The bottom line is that only “patriots” who are loyal to the CPC will be allowed to contest the election. This is sharp contrast to the earlier times when close to 94% of the seats to the District Council were elected. With the new changes to the electoral law that became effective in July 2023, the proportion of elected seats in much lower than when the District Councils were elected under British rule in 1982.

The District Councils came into prominence in 2019 when the pro-democracy lobby in the region won a landslide victory after months of protest. The protests were against the legal revisions proposed by the Chinese authorities in Hong Kong allowing criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. This led to protests by students, lawyers and teachers across Hong Kong, the echoes of which still resonate in the region. John Lee, a former Chief Executive of Hong Kong, when introducing the revisions to the electoral laws noted that when the pro-democracy councils were formed in 2019, they were “platforms of protest and violence and Hong Kong independence”.

Soon after the return of Hong Kong to the Communist fold in 1997, the CPC began to interfere in the administration of the region. This was despite their assurance to the UK that they would maintain the standard civil liberties of the people for 50 years! After the massive protests in 2019, the authorities imposed the draconian national security law that undermined the very foundation of freedom and transparency in Hong Kong. In 2021, China revamped the electoral laws governing Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, to ensure that only those who could prove themselves to be loyal to the CPC could stand for elections.

Consequently, many Hong Kong residents fled for the West. Between 2019 and 2022, Hong Kong’s population declined from 7.5 million to 7.3 million of those who migrated out nearly 124,000 moved to the UK, while many others have settled in Canada. Prominent amongst those who moved out of Hong Kong were young opposition figures who played a crucial role in the pro-democracy movement, including Agnes Chow, Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Lester Shum.

Opposition activist Agnes Chow Ting pledged to never return home after fleeing to Canada. Chow is among the young activists caught in the trap of the 2020 national security law, alongside others, such as Edward Leung Tin-kei, who was then serving time in prison. Thanks to the South China Morning Post (5 December 2023) it is possible to trace the whereabouts of each of these pro-democracy activists. Each of these activists fought hard to retain democracy in Hong Kong, but the Communist Party, by a combination of legal change and force, ensured that communist rule became more entrenched in the region than ever before.

Chow co-founded the political party ‘Demosisto’, with fellow activists Joshua Wong Chi-fung and Nathan Law Kwun-chung. She left Hong Kong three months ago to pursue a Master’s degree in Canada. Earlier in 2017, Chow was disqualified from running in a Legislative Council by-election on the grounds that her party, which called for self-determination, had rendered her ineligible under the rules to curb advocacy for independence. She was detained in 2020 for allegedly plotting to collude with ‘foreign forces’ by calling for sanctions on Hong Kong. In December 2020, she was sentenced to ten months for inciting protesters to besiege the police headquarters during the 2910 demonstrations.

Fellow Demosisto co-founder Nathan Law came into the limelight in 2014 as a key leader during the Occupy movement and today lives in the UK. He was granted asylum in 2021. Law was elected as Hong Kong’s youngest lawmaker in 2016. Ahead of his swearing-in, he had quoted Mahatma Gandhi, saying: “You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind.” In August 2017, he was sentenced to eight months’ jail time for his role in the storming of government ­headquarters at ­Tamar in 2014. In 2018, the Court of Final Appeal overturned jail terms handed down to Law, Wong and fellow activist Alex Chow Yong-kang.

Wong, 27, achieved international fame as a student activist, appearing on the cover of Time magazine and becoming the subject of a documentary. He first became a household name in 2012 when he co-founded pupil-led group Scholarism and led protests. Wong was amongst those who spearheaded lobbying to get the Trump administration, and US politicians in 2019, to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. Wong is currently in custody and is accused of violating the national security law by attempting to subvert state power. Leung, now 32, previously acted as a spokesman for localist group Hong Kong Indigenous and served as the face of the city’s pro-independence movement. The activist was jailed for six years for rioting and assaulting an officer during the 2016 Mong Kok riot, which was sparked by scuffles between street hawkers and municipal staff on the first day of Lunar New Year and escalated into violent clashes between police and demonstrators. Leung was released early in January 2022 after serving four years behind bars.

The Hong Kong story of those who fought against the CPC rekindles the memories of the pro-democracy movement. For Hong Kong that moment is gone and what remains is a region tightly under the control of mainland China. While the people of Hong Kong still have some privileges, like access to internet, the political landscape is no longer has the democratic system that prevailed under British rule. The Communist regime has ensured by law and by force that no leader or politician shall arise who can challenge President Xi Jinping.








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