Since China implemented the National Security Law in July, pro-democracy figures have faced repeated arrests. Prominent activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were sentenced to prison over illegal assembly charges. Media mogul Jimmy Lai is behind bars, charged with colluding with foreign entities.
What makes the latest sweep so devastating to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement? Here are four takeaways for the city’s political future.
1. Attempting to win an election becomes subversion under the National Security Law.
The nonbinding primary election in July was an informal effort by the opposition to select their most popular candidates to compete in the September Legislative Council (LegCo) election, which Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government then postponed to September this year. Emboldened by a landslide victory in the 2019 district council elections, the pro-democracy camp hoped to capture a majority of seats in the LegCo, which has been historically dominated by pro-Beijing factions. Such a majority would grant the opposition power to veto the government’s annual budget. More than 600,000 Hong Kongers voted peacefully in the unofficial primary as a symbol of defiance against Beijing’s tightening grip on the city.
The primary also served as a coordinating exercise to maximize the pro-democracy camp’s chance of winning a majority — pro-Beijing parties have taken similar efforts with the aid of the Central Government Liaison Office to coordinate strategically, as early as 2004. But Hong Kong Secretary for Security John Lee denounced the primary as a “malicious” plan, claiming the opposition would overthrow the government if it obtained a majority and plunge the city into a “bottomless abyss.” Lee’s logic in justifying the arrests displayed the lengths to which the Hong Kong government would extend the National Security Law to quash pro-democratic forces.
2. Hong Kong appears to be widely purging the opposition.
Among those arrested were candidates in last summer’s primary who span the political spectrum of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. They include veteran lawmakers, younger and radical activists who rose to prominence during the protests, and moderate independents. Jeffrey Andrews, for instance, was the first ethnic minority candidate to advocate for marginalized communities in Hong Kong. Although most of the arrested were released on bail, with their travel documents confiscated, the message from Beijing remains clear: Any association with the opposition could result in suppression.
3. The arrests may dampen pro-democracy activism.
Police also arrested those who helped organize the primary, including professor Benny Tai, former lawmaker Au Nok-hin and Andrew Chiu Ka-yin, the convener of Power for Democracy, an advocacy group that coordinates the pro-democracy camp’s electoral campaigns. John Clancey, an American human rights lawyer who served as the treasurer of Power for Democracy, was also a target of the operation, becoming the first foreign citizen arrested under the security law.
What about the 600,000 Hong Kongers who turned out to vote in the primary? Despite Secretary Lee’s claims that voters were not targeted in Wednesday’s operation, the fear of prosecution by association will likely discourage new generations from becoming more politically active. A number of civic groups are disbanding and deleting their records for fear of a new wave of crackdowns, and pro-democracy media outlets also report increasing intimidation by police.
4. The rules of political engagement have tightened.
For authoritarian regimes that permit some level of political competition, elections are points of vulnerability that may weaken the regime — and, in Hong Kong’s case, potentially erode Beijing’s political control over the city.
But Beijing and the Hong Kong government miscalculated the broad support for the pro-democracy movement and suffered an embarrassing defeat at the district council elections in 2019. Since then, Chinese and Hong Kong officials have intensified efforts to manage politics on the street and in elections. The covid-19 pandemic along with the National Security Law, for instance, have stifled the large protests in the streets.
The Hong Kong government has been tilting the playing field since the implementation of the National Security Law. It postponed the September election, in which the opposition seemed likely to do well, then disqualified four sitting LegCo members of the Civic Party, accusing them of being “unpatriotic,” based on a resolution passed by Beijing’s top legislative body to curb further dissent. The disqualification rendered the remaining 15 pro-democracy legislators powerless to challenge any bills in the 70-seat legislature dominated by pro-Beijing lawmakers, which prompted a mass resignation of the pro-democracy camp in protest against Beijing’s decision. The latest mass arrest seems to suggest that simply participating in or supporting opposition politics in Hong Kong is now considered a crime.
It’s likely Hong Kong will continue to hold elections, but the future elections will no longer resemble the semi-democratic contests Hong Kong has seen before. Instead, elections may become an institutional tool for Beijing to co-opt elites and segments within society, and to establish legitimacy at home or abroad — particularly as a way of maintaining the “one country two systems” facade.
New parties friendly with Beijing will likely fill the LegCo void in the election rescheduled for September 2021. There’s speculation that the Bauhinia Party, a new party composed of business and financial professionals born in China who have settled in Hong Kong, will compete with the existing pro-Beijing groups across all electoral levels. Much like the nomination process for the chief executive election, the list of parties qualified for political contest would be heavily vetted by Beijing, with pro-democracy candidates likely to be filtered out as disqualified to participate. With these moves, critics warn, Hong Kong slides further toward authoritarianism.
Maggie Shum, research associate at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame, is a native of Hong Kong. Her research focuses on party organization, participatory institutions and contentious politics in Latin America and Hong Kong.