Opinion | How Hong Kong became a focus at the two sessions
By Richard Cullen, Visiting Professor of Law at HKU
The HKSAR has featured more than is usual during the Two Sessions meetings this year. Major political-structure reforms have been outlined for Hong Kong. Briefly, these focus on the requirement that only patriots should govern Hong Kong.
This is not terminology used in Western democracies. Those jurisdictions do, however, direct their attention to like concerns with their robust understanding of the need for a loyal opposition. This term stresses the obligation that, although a given jurisdiction may have competing political parties, all parties and their members must jointly respect and always remain loyal to the basic constitutional order in that jurisdiction.
How, though, have we come to this point in political time in the HKSAR?
It is useful to think back to 2014 and 2015.
The Occupy Central Movement (OCM) massively impeded normal daily life in Hong Kong in 2014 for almost three months. Following this, in 2015, the Opposition in LegCo vetoed the proposed amendments to allow a universal suffrage election for the Chief Executive (CE) in 2017. The proposed reform included a vetting mechanism for CE candidates. The OCM leaders and the Opposition scorned what was offered. They were in no mood to compromise with respect to their demand for what they called true democracy.
Had this cardinal political error not been made, Hong Kong would have moved forward with measured, significant political reform. It would also have opened the door to serious discussion about reform of the LegCo election system. Parties surely would still have disagreed about the pace and detail of reform, but, had some mature Opposition leadership been shown, people across Hong Kong could have become engaged in constructive debate about political reform and our future within China.
Alas, this was the affirmative road not taken.
Instead, negative responses overshadowed all debate. The door was shut loudly against both the offered reform and ongoing discussion. The level of hostility within the radical wing of the Opposition intensified. In fact, that radical wing had already shown how it had such penetrating influence on the entire Opposition movement that it could be regarded as "the tail wagging the dog". Certain mainstream Opposition members grew anxious lest they be targeted by extremists.
We became used to highly disruptive political behavior in LegCo, taking advantage of the lack of strong debate controlling rules. Normal law-making became yet more difficult. On the evening of February 8, 2016, there was a terrible political riot in Mong Kok, energized by violent localist, anti-Mainland activists.
Political enmity directed at the HKSAR Government and Beijing was now steadily mounting – with more in the Opposition following the radical game-plans. There was increasing media and social media involvement.
The Government explained and justified it's new, needed, 2019 Extradition Bill, but very soon, few were listening. It was recast, wrongly but wilfully and successfully, as a fearsome new, freedom-threatening law. Major anti-bill marches followed. Soon after, organized political violence began and Opposition members openly sought offshore support - from the US especially - including intervention to back the growing political upheaval in Hong Kong. On June 12, 2019, a grim political riot stopped LegCo from operating completely. This posed an exceptional threat to the constitutional order.
Looking back, we can see how damaging steps were taken one after another over several years and how the swelling political hostility ultimately developed into a gravely destabilizing insurrection which lasted more than six months.
Even after that unprecedented turmoil was brought under control, militant elements within the Opposition remained conspicuously undeterred. They moved on to a fresh scheme to create fundamental instability within the HKSAR into which they drew more moderate elements. This involved pre-selecting committed, radical-populist candidates who might secure a clear majority in the approaching 2020, LegCo elections, under the so called 35+ plan. With this majority, they aimed to use provisions in the Basic Law (contrary to their proper purpose) to coerce the Government by denying essential funding. This was a key step in provoking a new constitutional and political crisis, where an ultimate laam chau – burn together outcome was openly visualized.
Meanwhile, Washington had become, by 2017, directly confrontational towards Beijing in its attempt to contain China's rise. Customary menacing methods were deployed – including now well-documented moral, organizational and financial support for the ongoing insurgency in Hong Kong.
From Beijing's point of view, too many within the Opposition had gravitated towards becoming an actively disloyal Opposition – one where the radicals, more than ever set the agenda and the rest supported, followed, looked on or, at most, averted their gaze. Thus, no responsible group within the Opposition dared to step forward to say, simply, that the continuous violence was unconscionable and the insurrection was unsupportable.
For Beijing, it was also now categorically clear that the political insurgency of 2019 must be controlled and must not be allowed to recur. Furthermore, foreign actors must never, in future, be permitted such a free hand to involve themselves in destabilizing politics in Hong Kong.
Step one to ensure this was the application of the National Security Law (NSL) in the HKSAR, from July 1, 2020. The next step will be the application of the portfolio of political reforms outlined at the Two Sessions. These prominent changes are radical – but they are not rash or reckless. They are being moved forward well over a year after the political insurrection of 2019 was at its height and more than six months after the application of the NSL in Hong Kong. In fact, real restraint was demonstrated by Beijing in 2019. Direct intervention was avoided and much time was devoted to consider how best to craft short and long-term solutions to resolve the forbidding political upheaval that Hong Kong was enduring.
Life in Hong Kong will be significantly affected by all these changes. Fresh constraints on certain forms of expression previously tolerated, including reckless or inflammatory politicking aimed at destabilizing Hong Kong, now apply. These new measures are also, however, rebuilding stability. The risk of another offshore-influenced insurgency commencing has been hugely reduced as has the scope for direct, hostile international activity within the HKSAR. Critical foundations are being put in place to allow the HKSAR to get back to work to address pivotal, enduring livelihood and poverty issues.
Most importantly, all these moves confirm that Beijing wants Hong Kong to flourish, long-term, as the premier international city within China under the One Country Two Systems formula. To achieve this, new guard rails designed to protect Hong Kong's stability and prosperity – and to protect national security - are being installed. How these changes will play out over time, we must wait and see. It is now clear, however, that the events in 2019 made it unavoidable that certain elemental political reforms would have to follow.
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