Post-national security law HK: The case for universal suffrage

July 16, 2020 09:22
Photo: Reuters

Regardless of whatever one may make of it, the National Security Law has indeed passed in Hong Kong. Hong Kongers must acclimatise to a new normal – for some, this constitutes a return to “law and order”, “peace and stability”, whereby previously obstructionist voices are, per their opinion, prohibited from stifling political progress and policymaking processes; for others, the move may have signalled a stark end to an era of Hong Kong as we knew it. I don’t want to pontificate over the law – enough has been said as is. I want to make the case that in the post-National Security Law Hong Kong, the timing is ripe for universal suffrage and political reform. Here’s why.

Let us backtrack – for the moment – to 2003. Beijing sought to introduce Article 23, a base-line legislation that would have plugged core loopholes in Hong Kong’s national security regulations, ensuring that no one with secessionist ideology or thought could ascend to positions of political influence. There was a massive uproar then – after all, for a city that had just been returned to China for six years, the mistrust and scepticism towards the Central Administration were overbearing and overwhelming. Yet the public’s decision to strike down Article 23 had since stuck out like a sore thumb in Beijing’s political assessments. Senior Mainland Chinese bureaucrats and leaders were reticent about committing to substantive and rapid democratisation, fearing that doing so would both inflame secessionism and culminate at the ascent of political figures bent on upsetting their rule over China. Hong Kongers might not have appreciated this fact, but the writing was on the wall – without guaranteed national security, there could be no local democracy.

Fast forward 17 years, and here we are: a Hong Kong where national security baselines can be and are indeed upheld – through determinate, resolute laws forbidding collusion with foreign forces, domestic terrorism, splintering or inciting resistance against the Central Government. Radical democrats have portrayed the legislation as a fundamental rollback to Hong Kong’s core civil and political liberties; Establishment and pro-Beijing individuals view the law as a necessary curbing of freedoms in exchange for greater social stability. It seems, at least from first glance, that the legislation will effectively stifle the prospects of any and all political activity that undermines both Beijing’s ability to govern China at large, and – to perhaps a lesser extent – the Hong Kong administration’s capacity of executing its governing mandate.

This legislation also addresses the many perennial concerns that reform-minded individuals within the Hong Kong-Mainland Chinese liaison system have, concerning the city’s democratisation. It ensures that all of the candidates contesting and elected in the Chief Executive race must necessarily “Love the Country, Love Hong Kong” (“愛國愛港”); it precludes political voices advocating the neither realistic nor desirable end objective of Hong Kong independence; it also prevents Hong Kong’s democratisation efforts from spilling over to China. A minor addendum on the last point – given their attitudes towards the Hong Kong protests last year, it strikes me as deeply implausible that a vast majority of Mainland Chinese residents would find any resonance in the “pro-democracy movement” in Hong Kong. Worries about political contagion may therefore very well be overblown.

There exist plentiful reasons to think that the law does work in upholding Beijing’s baselines. The passage of the law saw the fleeing of the city of individuals who have openly campaigned for agenda that contravenes the National Security law, as well as the “retirement” or hiatus of various political commentators who have adopted aggressive, antagonistic stances towards China in the past. Even without actual enforcement, the law has clearly “worked” – this much is undeniable, even if one is a firm critic and opponent to the legislation. To think that any candidate or party could successfully subvert this new order, would be both cherubically idealistic and ignorant of the power asymmetry between the Mainland Chinese administration, and Hong Kong at large.

The above demonstrates why the Central Administration should no longer consider previously valid reasons as significant, but why should Beijing consider rolling out universal suffrage and political reforms, now? What positive incentives are there?

The first, and most straightforward reason, concerns the quality of governance. Having quality governance in Hong Kong matters to Beijing – it is of both symbolic and discursive importance that the “One Country, Two Systems” be demonstrably efficacious and effective (staunch critics of the regime would suggest that this arrangement is “dead’, just as they did in 1997, 2003, and 2014), yet as its nexus of international finance and currency exchange, China simply cannot afford to have a city that descends into political instability, passive resistance, and deep socioeconomic woes. Fixing problems such as housing and socioeconomic inequalities requires, at the very core, politico-structural changes. Universal suffrage – as a mechanism – helps ease public antagonism and frustrations towards the government, through lending it greater credibility and legitimacy; it also incentivises candidates to get to grips with the issues plaguing Hong Kong today. It compels candidates, through the natural eliminative mechanisms of popularity and manifesto assembling, to articulate and (ideally) implement – in fear of potential electoral repercussions – policies that genuinely serve the Hong Kong public. Above all, Beijing needs loyalists – those who adhere firmly and strictly to baselines; it does not need “yes-men”, those who only adhere to such baselines.

Here some may argue, how could democracy be rendered compatible with the narrative expounded up north, that “Western democracy isn’t the only mode of governance that works.”? Indeed, many may benefit from examining and recognising the impressive track records of governments of major cities in China – e.g. Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing, Tianjin, and Chengdu. It would be disingenuous to suggest that despite the lack of formal electoral democracy, these cities are ill-governed.

Yet this does not negate the fact that for a city steeped in internationalist values and Western culture, electoral democracy may well be what “clicks” for Hong Kong. Democrats in Hong Kong should be wary of the limits with which they should comply – advocating democratisation in the city, as opposed to advocating sweeping political changes across the entire country.

A further reason constitutes the fact that the Central Administration would benefit from the expedient and effective amelioration of the public’s fears concerning the post-National Security Law Hong Kong. Media outlets – both abroad and domestic – have branded the decision “the End of Hong Kong”, a narrative that has been strongly rebuked by the authorities. There exists no better way of repudiating such doomsday characterisation, than allowing for genuine yet constrained mass elections of both Chief Executive and the Legislative Council.

Many veteran pro-Establishment lawmakers and politicians have emphasised that Articles 23 and 45 should be implemented concurrently. Now is not too late – it’s high time that we recommence discussions about political reform and universal suffrage, to revive a city that we all have a stake in. Hong Kong does have a future; its political fortunes are necessarily is nested within the grander scheme of Chinese politics. No one – Democrat or Establishmentarian – should dismiss this fact.

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Assistant Professor, HKU