Seeming to signal an ironclad victory over the pro-democracy movement, freshly announced electoral reforms for Hong Kong district councils reveal the precise opposite. Hong Kong is wedded to democracy, and the sooner Beijing faces this historical inevitability, the less painful it will be for all concerned
On May 2, 2023, the leadership of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) dropped another authoritarian bombshell: Responding to the pro-democracy trouncing of pro-Beijing candidates in 2019, Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu (李家超) announced that the rules will be reconfigured for the next district council elections, which are set to be held at an unspecified date later this year.
The number of directly elected seats at the municipal level will be slashed to just 88, down from the current 452. Meanwhile, 179 seats will be named by Lee himself; 176 selected from three committees, all of which are government-appointed; and 27 will remain in the hands of the Chairmen of Rural Committees, which represent communities in the New Territories.
Constituency boundaries will be redrawn, too, and, to eliminate even a whisper of challenge to Xi Jinping thought, candidates will undergo both background checks and vetting by the aforementioned committees to ensure that they align with the Chinese Communist Party vision of a Hong Kong patriot. All this is to elect councilors whose official scope of work is little more than advising the city’s government on local public facilities and undertaking community activities.
Despite the limited responsibilities at stake, these changes are another stomping for democracy. In a city where many elected lawmakers languish in jail and representation at the legislative level is entirely Beijing-filtered, district councils offered a tiny window by which genuine opinions could be voiced by ballot. Few positives can be taken from seeing it slam so tightly shut.
A devil still remains in the details, however: No matter how Beijing reduces the scope of elections or fixes their results, it is still forced to acknowledge the principle of holding them. This much is symbolized by the 88 seats that still require a direct vote from the electorate and the entire charade of the new-look district council ballot itself. Put simply, future elections may present a false picture of what people want from their government, but all fakes are homages to the real thing, regardless of quality.
For the central problem of all dictatorships applies to China’s rule over Hong Kong just the same: legitimacy. In the absence of a Mandate of Heaven, power rests on the will of the people, and, to prove that will, they have to be asked. The results can be sieved, manipulated, gerrymandered or otherwise bullied into form, but the pretense that leaders are representatives of their people has to be maintained.
And China is very anxious to feign inclusive government: Its current vindictiveness towards district council elections can be traced to the emphatic rebuttal previously delivered by voting Hong Kongers of the Beijing claim that a “silent majority” of the city was behind it. Hong Kong security minister Chris Tang Ping-keung (鄧炳強) affects to represent the feelings of the Hong Kong people when bleating on the international stage too. Even John Lee himself has partially framed his electoral vandalism to district councils, not as a rejection of democratic process, but as an improvement to it.
Maintenance of the facade that citizens can still meaningfully contribute to deciding how they are ruled suggests other conclusions as well: Beijing may project that it holds the whole world in its palm, but it does not operate in a vacuum. The opinions of other countries, their electorates and their consumers can and do have influence. To some degree, they have to be placated. Facts can be denied and details twisted, but principles like citizen participation in government are not easily dissolved.
In so much, even as China hollows out yet another election process in Hong Kong, it exposes an inherent weakness with the shell it leaves behind. Yes, it can functionally manufacture what looks like the will of the people, but it cannot manufacture an alternative to their will as the foundations of legitimate leadership. Therein lies the seeds of its downfall, and that it must accept: Sooner or later, the gap shall have to reconcile between the image of general harmony in Hong Kong and the reality of a populace whose thin tolerance of its rulers can only be sustained through institutional violence.
Woe betide the chief executive in charge of the city when that moment comes.