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What Hong Kong’s Legislative Reforms Mean for the City

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What Hong Kong’s Legislative Reforms Mean for the City

Parsing the motivations, and implications, of Beijing’s plan to overhaul Hong Kong’s electoral and legislative structures.

What Hong Kong’s Legislative Reforms Mean for the City
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Baycrest

At the recently concluded “two sessions” featuring the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Beijing announced sweeping transformations to Hong Kong’s legislative and chief executive elections. The precise contents of these reforms have been covered elsewhere, but three points are worth highlighting.

First, the changes herald significantly greater gatekeeping and tightening controls concerning the eligibility of candidates contesting electoral offices, both in terms of the city’s highest office (nominally) and its legislature. Given the increasingly executive-driven nature of the Hong Kong regime – with an overarching emphasis placed upon unity rather than checks-and-balances – it is unlikely that the post-reform legislature will play as preeminent a role of constraining the executive as it has previously. Whether this heralds an improvement or decline in the quality of governance remains to be seen.

Second, the reforms will expand – nominally – the sizes of both the Electoral Committee and the Legislative Council (LegCo) with a 25 percent increase in number of seats on the former, and 20 additional seats – on net – on the latter. The 1,200-strong electoral college will see the incorporation of a new, 300-person sector comprising voting delegates vetted and trusted by the central administration in Beijing, tasked with electing Hong Kong’s chief executive. The quantitative increase, as such, does not necessarily connote heightened representativeness.

Third, numerous reports have suggested that the reforms will accompany modifications to the Electoral Committee’s and LegCo’s composition – with the potential addition, removal, and resizing of sectors and constituencies within them – as well as the rejigging of the electoral method. For one, the current proportional representation (with largest remainder) system is likely to be scrapped, in favor of a two-member-per-constituency first-past-the-post system.

What would these reforms realistically mean for the city? While members of the establishment have celebrated the reforms with zeal, as a prelude to more substantive, robust “political revamping,” others have characterized the changes as the (most recent) death knell of the city’s democracy. The reality is likely more complicated. It’s imperative that we separate fact from fiction, prognosis from propaganda: only then an we make sense of the incredibly complex politics immanent in Hong Kong today.

At first glance, it is somewhat unclear as to why Beijing views such a drastic overhaul as necessary. In the aftermath of the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests, the National Security Law was passed, with the explicit stipulation that actions undermining overarching “law and order” through “secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion” would be strictly punished and prosecuted. The opposition was decimated, with some prominent figures fleeing the city and other leading democrats facing prosecution. It appears that Beijing need not invoke such legislative changes in order to quell dissent – and indeed, this is why the “silencing the opposition” thesis is an unconvincing explanation for the reforms. Beijing is fully aware that the current crop of opposition no longer poses a substantial threat to its authority in the city.

An alternative explanation is thus forward-looking and structural: it suggests that it the move has not been motivated by the current batch of opposition, but rather the uncertainties embedded within the legislative apparatus. Beijing is wary that the legislative system, as it stands, would give rise to parties and agents with an interest in thwarting the special administrative region’s government, thereby undermining, both symbolically and substantively, its overarching command of the city.

The writing was on the wall after the landslide victory in the 2019 District Council elections by democratic candidates and their subsequent touting of the “35-plus” plan, whereby certain segments of the democratic camp sought to achieve a simple majority in the legislature capable of vetoing the Policy Address as a proposed means of paralyzing the executive branch’s operations. These developments were viewed by many in Beijing as a sign that, should democrats indeed win a sizable portion of the seats in LegCo, there could be no compromise or room for constructive engagement. Hard-liners had long felt that the post-handover Hong Kong administration had been excessively reticent in enshrining core baselines that would ensure certainty and stability in its rule. They were vindicated by the emphatic rhetoric adopted by the opposition. Beijing became increasingly convinced that it needed to take matters into its own hands prior to suffering another ignominious setback in Hong Kong.

Hence the recent reforms were drafted and promulgated largely by the central administration, with minimal consultation of local pro-establishment politicians, whom Beijing views as ineffective and, at worst, mendacious. Political diversity and pluralism may still be nominally possible on socioeconomic or non-political issues. Yet the baselines have been drawn, and the costs of crossing them made publicly known and glaringly apparent. Any member who seeks to contest the new elections must – on grounds of prudential interest or compliance with the outlined laws – pass Beijing’s “loyalty test.” While some have suggested that this will pave the way for the election of sycophantic individuals, prominent academics in the mainland China-Hong Kong system have gone to painstaking lengths to assure the public that Beijing needs no “loyal garbage.”  What counts as loyal, and what counts as garbage – these are questions that remain to be answered.

The reforms are likely to usher in an era of “depoliticized” governance. Long absent from the city post-handover, this style of governing was once the norm for large swathes of the 20th century, when Hong Kong was governed by a draconian colonial administration. Depoliticization connotes not only an end to discussions concerning universal suffrage and political liberalization (in the short run), but also a detachment of the opposition’s critiques and vigorous debate from the underlying ideological and political dispositions that had characterized the pan-democrats’ rhetoric over the past two decades. Some would deem this a “defanging” of the opposition, though ironically, with the subsiding of blatantly political elements in the opposition, there might be what Beijing describes as “more freedom” under the tightly upheld “baselines.”

There are two problems with such de-politicization, however. The first is that politics in Hong Kong is inevitably political. From running in elections, which requires exorbitant sums of money (thereby lending substantial sway and say to property developers and land owners who control large volumes of liquidity in the city), to lobbying and courting votes in the exclusive leadership race (where the business community has traditionally enjoyed an arguably outsized influence), to juggling the demands of Hong Kongers’ interests and Beijing’s vision for the city: all of these questions are political. Indeed, to think that such processes can be de-politicized reflects a dangerous degree of naivete.

The second is that unlike the masses in the 1980s, Hong Kong today features generations of individuals with an apparent thirst for political inclusion and representation. These individuals seek governance that not only is competent, but that is also seen as competent and responsive to their needs and wants. Here is where the tricky part comes in: de-politicization, if improperly enacted, could well leave the administration bereft of the necessary charisma and credibility to carry through policy changes and implementation. Singapore’s response to an increasingly educated and mobilized public is to absorb, co-opt, and integrate elements of dissent and opposition into the ruling party. Does Hong Kong’s ruling coalition have the appetite for such progressiveness and expedient meritocracy?

Again, only time will tell, though early signs are somewhat promising. Leading academics in Beijing have called for “virtuous patriots” and an eschewing of “monolithic discourse”; others have faulted the existing and previous Hong Kong administrations for repelling political talents and pursuing self-serving sycophancy. “It’s easy to feign loyalty, but it’s harder to be actually competent,”  political scientist Zheng Yongnian quipped.

In any case, it is apparent that “one country, two systems” is due for a reset under China’s reforms. For large periods after the handover, Beijing took a relatively hands-off approach to Hong Kong’s domestic affairs, whether in economics, housing policy, education, or, indeed, social and labor rights. The presumption was that so long as Hong Kong complied with China’s political requirements of not fomenting secessionism and other forms of interference with the CCP’s governing authority, Hong Kong’s “internal affairs” were none of Beijing’s business.

Yet the city’s socioeconomic integration and political assimilation into the rest of the country are inevitable and largely irrevocable trends. The “two systems” could feign to be nominally separate from one another, yet under the influences of the “one country,” there is only so much compartmentalization and siphoning that can be done. With the heightened economic exchanges and bilateral trade, as well as substantially increased cross-border mobility (until the recent outbreak of the pandemic), Beijing became increasingly anxious over Hong Kong’s potential to become a hub of foreign forces bent on inciting sedition and rebellion in the country. The intactness of “one country” became progressively framed as antithetical to the maximal devolution and autonomy of “two systems.”

Hence, if last year’s National Security Law was a stop-gap measure, the touted legislative changes are Beijing’s structural antidote to the opposition it is witnessing in Hong Kong. What is made conspicuously clear by the past year of responses from Beijing is that the two systems must exist to serve the one country, as opposed to the other way round.

All of this makes sense in abstract, but establishing a stable, competent, and fundamentally progressive aura of governance in the city requires more than merely the institutional exclusion of naysayers and dissenters. Dissent is easy to quell on surface, but dissatisfaction and disillusionment toward the local administration will only build in the absence of a pressure valve. If the city is to regain its competitiveness and long-term stability, it is imperative that it extends an olive branch to the alienated masses, while roping in talents and creative voices that can help propel reforms in the city.

The legislative reforms cannot be the be-all-and-end-all. Beijing is certainly well aware of this fact. Hong Kong remains riddled by problems, ranging from a disconnected, aloof governing class, to a frankly anachronistic education system and economy, to severely under-funded start-up and innovation sectors. Political and structural changes ought to reflect the demands and needs of the people. Only then will the city see a light at the end of the tunnel.