Is democracy in Hong Kong forever blunted?

HONG KONG: Jacob Mak had been looking forward to voting in the Legislative Council (Legco) election slated for Sep 6. It would, he felt, give him an opportunity to help shape the city’s future.

But that excitement turned into angry disappointment, when the election was postponed for a full year, amid a resurgence of COVID-19 cases.

“That is totally not acceptable because it lacks a legal basis,” the 40-year-old said.  Another disappointed voter, paralegal Angie Te, pointed out that Singapore and South Korea held elections in the middle of the pandemic.

To voters like them and opposition leaders, it’s another sign that pro-Beijing officials are trying to silence the pro-democracy movement. In June, Hong Kong authorities barred 12 pro-democracy candidates from the Legco election, which are held once in every four years.

Pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong, Eddie Chu and Lester Shum arrive at the West Kowloon Courts be
Pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong, Eddie Chu and Lester Shum arrive at the West Kowloon Courts to face charges related to illegal assembly in Hong Kong, Sep 15, 2020. (REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Then in August, the police arrested several prominent pro-democracy advocates, including social activist Agnes Chow and media mogul Jimmy Lai, an outspoken critic of China’s Communist party.

The cautious optimism that emerged following the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China in 1997 appears to have vanished – replaced by a sense of foreboding, and a growing pessimism among residents about their future, with some now afraid to speak their minds for fear of reprisals.

In a recent episode, the programme Insight asked: Is there still a future for democracy in the city?

WATCH: The end for Hong Kong’s democracy movement? (5:52)

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SAFETY OR EXCUSE?

The Legco is Hong Kong’s top decision-making body, but only half the 70 seats are directly elected by the public, while the other half are mostly filled with Beijing loyalists.

To the pro-democracy camp, the September polls would have been an opportunity to make their voices heard after the turbulent events of the past year. It was perceived as their first real shot at capturing majority seats in the legislature.

But on July 31, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam announced she was invoking the Emergency Regulations Law to postpone the polls, insisting it was for the safety of the people in Hong Kong.

Bernard Chan, convenor of Hong Kong’s Executive Council, noted that a large turnout of at least 3 million voters would indeed contradict social distancing restrictions. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said, noting that elections in other countries had been similarly cancelled or postponed.

A student wears surgical mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Hong Kong
FILE PHOTO: A student wears a surgical mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Hong Kong. (Reuters/Tyrone Siu)

He added that disqualified candidates could always appeal through the courts and get themselves re-instated. “In fact, over the last couple of years, we have candidates who actually won the appeal,” he said.

New Zealand – with relatively low rates of infection and deaths – called off its polls but South Korea and Singapore went ahead with theirs.

Hong Kong Legco member Claudia Mo said the impression given was that “the Carrie Lam administration obviously has taken advantage of this coronavirus panic and scare to postpone the legislative election”.

A NEW CLIMATE OF FEAR?

In the municipal District Council election held last November, Hong Kong voters registered their deep unhappiness with the government. Pro-Beijing candidates lost two-thirds of their seats.

But Beijing’s patience with the territory apparently ran out. On June 30, the central government unilaterally passed the controversial National Security Law criminalising any act of secession, subversion and collusion with foreign and external forces.

The pro-democracy movement sees it as an attempt to silence critics.  And Mak, a consultant in the manufacturing industry, says the impact has been felt.

“The locals have started changing their names on Facebook, trying to go anonymous to… speak their truth,” he said. “That’s not the way it was when Hong Kong was under a strict common law regime.”

Insight hong kong democracy rally
Known for being outspoken, will Hong Kong residents now dial back? 

Associate Prof Alfred M Wu, assistant dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, echoes this observation. “You can see people now actually deleting their social media accounts… They are trying to decline interviews from journalists.

“Those are very clear signs that they are trying to protect themselves.  They are not as outspoken as before,” he added.

Mo cited meeting a taxi driver recently, who told her: “I used to talk freely about what I think about the government with my passengers. But now I’d better be careful because I have my registration label here with my name and my vehicle number.” 

WATCH: Democratic crisis in Hong Kong – the full episode (48:30)

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Sing Ming, an associate professor at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, said the three developments – the postponed election, disqualification of candidates, and the Security law – showed that Beijing leaders “can no longer tolerate the public political dissent in Hong Kong”.

Wu also believes that Beijing does not want “Hong Kong people’s so-called liberal mindsets” to spread to the mainland.

The government has said that nothing has really changed, and that people can continue to exercise their democratic rights.

Bernard Chan thinks that like what happened after the handover of Hong Kong by the British in 1997, it will take time to prove to residents that they will continue to have that freedom.

“Of course, provided you don’t cross the line…. subverting the state power or asking for the independence of Hong Kong,” he added.

Indeed some, like IT entrepreneur Louis Chan, just want stability to return to the territory, even if that means giving China more powers to manage the city’s affairs.

“Last year, you could see fires burning in front of the courts… People who hold different political views can be beaten on the streets. It is a chaotic society,” he lamented.

For the pro-democracy camp, the challenge will be how to keep the momentum going until the rescheduled Legco election next September, and to survive in a much tougher environment.

“I think the public expect them to keep on their fight for maintaining our civil liberties,” said Ming. “The public also expects them to fight in a smart way – evade arrests so that they can still operate, they can still function.”

Watch the full Insight episode on Hong Kong’s democratic crisis here.