Is HK tilting from a semi-democracy to a semi-dictatorship?

May 23, 2019 08:02
China’s top representative in Hong Kong, Wang Zhimin, and Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Beijing has given its support to the Hong Kong government's proposed legislation amending the extradition laws. Photo: HKEJ

Three days ago our government silenced the voice of Hong Kong people. It concluded the chief executive’s governing authority is more important than the interests of the people. In full democracies, the governing power of leaders comes from the people. As a semi-democracy, the power of Hong Kong’s leader comes from an election committee of 1,200 who selects the chief executive.

The power of the people in our semi-democracy is exercised through the legislature made up of directly and indirectly-elected members. Unlike the US Congress and legislatures in other democracies, our Legislative Council cannot initiate legislation. It only has the power to enact, vote down, vet, and amend government-proposed laws during the legislative process.

Removing any stage of this process effectively assaults the voice of the people. That’s exactly what the government did last Monday. Security Secretary John Lee Ka-chiu announced the government would bypass the vetting stage of the highly controversial extradition bill by taking the proposed legislation straight to the full council.

There can be no understating the importance of the vetting stage through a bills committee of Legco. It is during this stage that every word, line, and clause of proposed legislation is examined, the views of the public sought, and necessary amendments made before the bill reaches the full council for further debate. Removing this stage is like crippling the limbs of Legco.

Hong Kong’s status as a semi-democracy has become tenuous at best since the failure of the 2014 Umbrella Movement to press for greater democracy. Many Western democracies are openly expressing grave concerns about Beijing’s tightening grip on Hong Kong, which they say has eroded the city’s freedoms and autonomy. They have also expressed fears that an extradition treaty with Beijing would expose their nationals in Hong Kong to the mainland’s judicial system, which they say is politically controlled.

My fear is that as Western democracies become ever more convinced that Beijing is gradually eroding our high degree of autonomy by using the Hong Kong government as a proxy to limit free speech, ban political parties, and disqualify opposition candidates from elections, Hong Kong’s status as a semi-democracy could tilt towards being a semi-dictatorship.

Freedom House, among other international groups, still rate Hong Kong as partly-free but has warned Beijing is eroding our freedoms. I don’t think it will lower our status to not free in the near future but it would be disastrous for Hong Kong if Freedom House decides one day to downgrade our status as a partly-free society.

What terrifies Hong Kong people, including many in the establishment camp, is being tried in mainland courts if extradited. Most Hongkongers have zero faith in the mainland’s legal system. They have seen closed trials of human rights activists, the abduction of Hong Kong booksellers who were made to confess on TV, a 99.9 percent conviction rate, and the arrests of two Canadians, who have been denied access to lawyers, in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of a top Huawei official at the extradition request of the United States.

Pro-government legislator Abraham Shek Lai-him told me in a TVB interview two days ago he couldn’t understand why Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor wants to rush through a rendition treaty with Beijing when Hong Kong had done just fine without one for 22 years. He said if the system is not broken, don’t fix it. In fact, Lam and her top officials have still to convincingly answer a question many Hongkongers are asking – why insist on a treaty with Beijing when the only urgency is to extradite an alleged Hong Kong murderer to Taiwan?

Numerous sources have told me Lam considers the extradition treaty as a face and governance issue. If she withdraws the bill, she will not only lose face but also weaken her ability to govern Hong Kong. Some sources told me she conveyed this to mainland officials and asked for their support. I have not independently confirmed this but it may explain why mainland officials, including Vice Premier Han Zheng, who had kept silent on the issue, suddenly started saying in public they fully support the rendition bill.

China’s top representative in Hong Kong, Wang Zhimin, went as far as summoning local delegates of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference to a meeting last Friday to demand their support for the extradition treaty. Three days later, on Monday, security secretary Lee announced the government will ask Legco to bypass the vetting stage and take the extradition bill straight to the full Legco for a vote.

This creates two questions crying out for answers: does Lam care more about her governing authority than the voice of Hongkongers, and who actually calls the shots in Hong Kong, Lam or Wang, who heads Beijing’s liaison office here?

These are not questions I am asking. I am just repeating the questions Hong Kong people are asking. In the lead-up to the 1997 reunification and after, Hongkongers were repeatedly assured there would not be two power centers. But many people now believe the liaison office has become the true power center.

I hope they are wrong, but as Abraham Shek told me during my TV interview with him, the government has not adequately eased the fears of Hongkongers about the rendition treaty with Beijing.

In 2003, when half a million people took to the streets against Article 23 national security legislation, the government withdrew the bill. A friend asked me if half a million people protested again, would Lam withdraw the extradition bill. I replied I couldn’t say for sure but it’s unlikely she would. That’s the tragedy of Hong Kong.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.