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HK's new political realities after 2019 watershed year

By Richard Cullen | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2021-03-13 16:24
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Aerial photo taken on June 25, 2020 shows people displaying China's national flag in Tamar Park in Hong Kong. [Photo/Xinhua]

Intense disputation within the LegCo in May 2019, which involved open physical intimidation by Opposition members, played a significant role in laying the foundations, through the example, for the coming mass public protests — and violent civil upheaval — initially directed against the HKSAR Government's proposed new Extradition Bill.

This was, in fact, a needed bill justified by imperatives. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) of the leading G7 group of countries had urged Hong Kong, in 2008, to reform its visibly inadequate extradition regime. According to Reuters, the FATF confirmed, in September 2019, that the lack of expected extradition provisions was an obstacle to tackling money laundering and terrorism. By then, however, the SAR government had withdrawn the bill following very large protest marches in June. The purpose of the bill had spuriously but very effectively been recast by the Opposition, with extensive media support, as a mass threat to personal freedoms in the HKSAR.

It was in June 2019 that Hong Kong's multi-month insurgency began, spinning off from the mass marches, to become an exceedingly violent anti-government, anti-China movement. It is now clear that it was robustly financed (from offshore and onshore), thoroughly planned and highly organized.

The audacious physical aggression within LegCo in May had not stopped consideration of the Extradition Bill. The fierce protest-riot on June 12 ultimately did so, however, by shutting down the operation of LegCo completely. A fateful blow to Hong Kong's basic constitutional order was struck. Now an enduring insurrection was underway, one which would include a perverse attempt to fire-bomb us all onto the road of everlasting democratic bliss.

The 2019 civil turmoil, with its horrific levels of damage was, manifestly, many violent steps too far. Yet after this unrest was finally curbed, the Opposition then moved vigorously ahead with their "35+ Laam Chau" (Burn Together) plan, where they aimed to secure a clear majority in LegCo and use certain Basic Law provisions not for their proper purpose, but to deny government funding to generate a massive new constitutional and political crisis. The first elements of this drastic political scheme, a plan to pre-select committed, populist-radical candidates went ahead in July last year after the new National Security Law (NSL) came into effect and despite government warnings about its legality.

Beijing's patience had to give way. Finding how to save Hong Kong from the extremists within, who were prepared to see Hong Kong ruined, if need be, to secure their intensely militant, abstract, anti-HKSAR and anti-China ends, became, inescapably, a paramount concern. It was abundantly clear that the more moderate core of the Opposition had been continuously unwilling — or unable — to assist in firmly shutting the insurgency down. Now numbers from within that group were joining a fresh scheme to visit overwhelming political disarray on the HKSAR.

The lead-up to these astoundingly disruptive projects included the Mong Kok riot in 2016 and the dogmatic rejection, in 2015, of circumspect but real political reform of the format for the Chief Executive election. This ill-omened decision followed on after the massively disruptive Occupy Central protests in 2014. Previously, in 2010, there had been a rancorous split within the Opposition over LegCo reforms agreed at that time.

In August 2019, I finished writing a book on Hong Kong Constitutionalism. Chapter 6 concludes with the observation that the LegCo had become the pivot of governance dysfunction in Hong Kong. Events since then have, unfortunately, firmly confirmed this assessment. For well over a decade, the operation of the LegCo had become steadily more ineffective as a result of guileful exploitation of procedural rules, incessant filibustering, stunt-based politicking and a resort to shameless intimidation tactics.

Today we know key components of the strategy to restore the normality of Hong Kong's long-term stability. First, there is the National Security Law, which has been applied, with conspicuous effect, from last July. Now we are about to witness a set of fundamental political reforms which will (combined with certain other changes) restructure both the Election Committee and LegCo.

LegCo is to be expanded to 90 seats (up from 70 currently). One possible mix discussed is no more than 30 directly elected seats, 30 Functional Constituency seats and 30 new seats elected from within the Election Committee, which chooses the Chief Executive. The Election Committee will increase in size from 1,200 members to 1,500 members, with a redistribution of seats currently reserved for elected District Council members.

The bottom line is that the proportion of directly elected seats within LegCo is being diminished. According to reports, the total number of such seats is set to be reduced, in effect, by 10. The heedless determination of the Opposition to push ahead with their "35+" strategy has plainly been one key factor influencing this radical reformatting of LegCo numbers. These changes foreclose resorting to any such tactical misuse plans in the future.

It is also understood that the restructured Election Committee will have a formal role in sanctioning those wishing to stand in LegCo elections. In sum, a significant augmentation of Election Committee powers allied to its interaction with LegCo is on the way.

Real restraint was shown by Beijing in 2019. These latest reforms have been developed based on lengthy consideration of: What has gone badly awry in Hong Kong; and how best to recast key aspects of the political structure to enable the HKSAR to regain its customary stability. They aim to underpin a refocussing, especially by LegCo, on the many fundamental livelihood, inequality, poverty and related challenges faced by Hong Kong.

Has the prospect of any democratizing political reform in the HKSAR now vanished? The former Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, suggests not, recently arguing that this latest fundamental reorganization could, in due course, pave the way for moves to adopt universal suffrage. Presumably, any such variation would be based on the reform offered in 2014 and adamantly rejected in 2015.

These latest changes have primarily been triggered by an exceptionally destabilizing, offshore-influenced insurrection, which unfolded, hardly unexpectedly, at a time of serious geopolitical tension. That the need for this radical restructuring is deeply felt in Beijing is scarcely surprising. These reforms are not, however, rash or reckless. They also convincingly signal enduring support for the distinctive role of the HKSAR within China.

The author is a visiting professor with the Law Faculty of the University of Hong Kong.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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