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Building a rigged system in the name of democracy

This is translated from CitizenNews' weekly digest tracking Hong Kong's political news over the past week. (一周政情:拆普選路軌 廢民主憧憬 建操控機制 立威權統治

In the past week, the most prominent political news has to be the sweeping changes made to the methods for the selection of the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council under two amendments passed by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPCSC) to Annexes I and II of the Basic Law. This has not only wiped out the democratic progress towards universal suffrage in Hong Kong since the handover, but Beijing has abolished the timetable and roadmap for universal suffrage and replaced it with an even ‘smaller circle’-election that can be fully manipulated. The Central Government has explicitly stated the selection cannot be challenged by judicial review, effectively establishing an authoritarian regime that only answers to Beijing.
We will not dwell into the details of the amendments, which were widely covered by the mainstream media over the past few days. It was best put by Professor Joseph Chan Cho-wai of the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong in a Facebook post on four “absurdity” over the changes:
Absurdity #1: It is surprising that some of the seats on the Election Committee (EC) can be replaced by government-appointed Area Committees, Fight Crime Committees, and Fire Safety Committees in the districts, instead of directly elected District Councils.

Absurdity #2: The Committee for Safeguarding National Security (CSNS) is involved in vetting the eligibility of candidates for the office of Chief Executive, but CSNS is chaired by the Chief Executive, i.e. the incumbent Chief Executive will now scrutinise the eligibility of her rival or successor. There is a clear conflict of interest.

Absurdity #3: The decision made by CSNS is not subject to legal challenge, which is a clear violation of procedural justice.

Most absurd: What started as a massive public consultation in the 1980s has now become an upending of political system and a broken promise of high-degree of autonomy, both single-handedly done by a sovereign with unchecked power. Now, not only is there no “gradual and orderly progress”, this is not even a “gradual” retrogression — it is a sudden death.”
Lam Miu-yan, a veteran political editor previously with Cable News, also highlighted:
(1) The rewritten Annexes I and II add up to more than 4,500 Chinese characters, which is comparable to one-third of the main text of the Basic Law. However, the entire "five-step processes” of political reform originally stipulated in the two Annexes have been removed. In other words, it abolished the already highly secure procedure where the Chief Executive proposes [a political reform package], the Central Government approves, agreed by two-thirds of the Legislative Council members and then the Chief Executive agrees, which originally approved by the Central Government.
(2) In the rewritten Annexes, some broad principles have been expanded. In the original Annex I, the first line reads: “The Chief Executive shall be elected by a broadly representative Election Committee in accordance with this Law...” has been expanded to "The Chief Executive shall be elected by a broadly representative that reflects the actual situation of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), and the overall interests of society in accordance with this Law..." In other words, the reform allows wriggle room for new rules in future.
(3) Article 5 of the new Annex I: “There shall be a system of conveners for the Election Committee. The conveners shall be responsible for convening meetings of the Election Committee where necessary to handle relevant matters. A chief convener shall be an Election Committee member who holds an office of state leadership. The chief convener shall designate a number of conveners for each sector of the Election Committee." Carrie Lam estimated that the post will be taken up by a vice chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), and that the system will only be triggered under special circumstances. What is meant by special circumstances? Does the state leader mean Tung or Leung? These have aroused speculation.
(4) The District Councillors’ seats in the EC are completely removed and replaced with Area Committees, Fight Crime Committees and Fire Prevention Committees. Together, these organisations will take up 156 seats in the EC, i.e. 10.4%, which is similar to the proportion of district councillors’ seats in the EC before the removal (9.75%). These 156 new EC members are all appointed by the same official: the Director of Home Affairs. In other words, the change has removed the representation by more than 4 million registered voters and vested it to just one person.
(5) According to Carrie Lam, "several principal officials of the SAR" are responsible for the eligibility review. In each of the past three elections of the Chief Executive, there were principal officials running in the election. Senior officials vetting the eligibility of senior officials (or even vetting themselves?) is a clear conflict of interest. There are two more hurdles to clear before a decision can be made by the Candidate Eligibility Review Committee (CERC): the first is to be vetted by the National Security Department of the Police Force, after which the Committee for Safeguarding National Security will make a judgment based on the vetting results. If a person has to be disqualified, the police force will submit a vetting opinion to the CERC. The entire political vetting system is designed without any judges involved. It is the only system in the SAR so far that has no judicial oversight at all.
(6) In early March, NPC announced that the number of seats in the Legislative Council would be increased to 90. At that time, there were 2 suggestions on the distribution of seats. 40-30-20, ie 40 seats in the EC, 30 seats in functional constituencies and 20 seats in geographical constituencies (direct elections). 30-30-30 refers to 30 seats each. At first, it was thought that the Central Government's 40-30-20 proposal made 30-30-30 look like a compromise, but the NPC delegate, Stanley Ng Chau-pei, had the “awareness” to suggest 50-20-20, making the final 40-30-20 proposal somewhat look like a compromise.
Apart from these two brilliant analyses, we would like to add the following observations.
(1) Beijing has completely controlled the elections of the Chief Executive and most part of the Legislative Council through the overhaul of the Election Committee. Theoretically, there is no need to change the "five-step process" laid down by NPCSC in 2004 by the interpretation of the Basic Law. However, Beijing still chose to remove all the relevant. This is obviously to crush Hong Kong’s people’s hope for political reform and to attempt to end discussion about timetable and roadmap of universal suffrage which was brought up in every Chief Executive or Legislative Council election. In the past, Chinese leaders only kept delaying and introducing hurdles, but at least they acknowledged the aspirations of Hong Kong people for universal suffrage and allowed some bargaining. This is a fundamental shift in approach and direction, not an adjustment in policy.
(2) With the addition of 300 new EC members, and the removal of more than 100 seats by District Councils in the EC, a total of more than 400 seats will be up for allocation by the Central Government. The 40 EC seats in the Legislative Council, which now has 90 seats in total, alongside with loyalists from existing functional constituencies and directly elected, would give the Central Government and its proxies a super majority in the House. What are left would be the businessmen, professionals and a very small fraction of token opposition. This new structure not only removes power once enjoyed by the pan-democrats in the CE Election Committee and the Legislative Council, but also to contain the business’ political influence established over the years. In 2017, John Tsang refused to accept Beijing's offer and insisted on running against Carrie Lam. Beijing suspected local business community was behind to use pan-democrats to force it to give in on pick for next chief executive. Although Carrie Lam’s victory was eventually secured, Beijing was clearly wary. The reshuffle in EC and the Legislative Council could create a new generation of patriotic faces in Hong Kong’s politics.

(3) If we are only talking about a retrogression in democracy and a drop in the number of directly elected seats, some traditional pan-democratic parties might consider swallowing the shame and serve in the new Legislative Council, just as they did last year when Beijing abruptly postponed the general election. In January, 55 democrats, who had organised or participated in the primary elections were arrested en masse, 47 of them were charged with subversion of the state and most were denied bail. Pan-democrats, moderate or radical, were all targeted in National Security Department’s arrests. No exception even to those who used to communicate with Beijing. The takeaway for the camp and its supporters was one: this spells the end for parliamentary or electoral politics. In future elections, most pan-democratic voters may struggle between blank votes or abstaining from voting, but not to vote for pro-Beijing candidates. If anyone from a pan-democratic background stands for election, they risk being labelled as a traitor, which may jeopardise their political career.  Under such a political atmosphere, no wonder we see the public was lukewarm to such electoral change, which is a form of protest. “It was as if saying to those in power, “Do whatever you want”. Civil society will transform drastically, walking away from politics and policies. Boycotting, non-cooperation and breaking up with the establishment to create something of its own will be the future.