Chinese Legislature Tightens Control Over Hong Kong Elections

China's president, Xi Jinping (center), and lawmakers applaud on March 11, 2021, in Beijing after approving a measure that effectively bars dissidents from running for elected office in Hong Kong.

China's president, Xi Jinping (center), and lawmakers applaud on March 11, 2021, in Beijing after approving a measure that effectively bars dissidents from running for elected office in Hong Kong.

March 11, 2021

China’s national legislature has approved a proposal granting Beijing increased control over Hong Kong’s elections, effectively barring political dissidents from running for local office.

Following the direction of the Chinese Communist Party, the National People’s Congress ratified the measure by a near-unanimous vote Thursday. The rule will allow a pro-CCP committee to approve or reject candidates for the city’s legislature, in yet another blow to the limited civil liberties that have distinguished Hong Kong from mainland China for decades.

The move comes after the CCP-backed government of Hong Kong announced last month that only “patriots” will be allowed to run for election, effectively preventing pro-democracy activists — like those who took to the streets in massive numbers throughout 2019 — from winning power.

“You cannot say you love the country but you don’t respect [the Chinese Communist Party],” Erick Tsang, Hong Kong’s secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, told The Washington Post in February. “It does not make sense.”

On Thursday, American members of U.S. Congress, including Republican Ben Sasse (R-NE) and Democrat Bob Menendez (D-NJ) criticized Beijing’s latest effort to assert control over Hong Kong’s politics. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Chinese authorities of trying to “quash” democracy in Hong Kong on Wednesday, ahead of a meeting with Chinese diplomats scheduled for next week, the Financial Times reported.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs pushed back, comparing activists in Hong Kong to those who overran the U.S. Capitol on January 6 in an effort to prevent the certification of the presidential election results.

“Different definitions of and attitudes towards Riot in #HongKong & Riot in #US Capitol reveal the western #DoubleStandards!” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijan Zhao tweeted Thursday.

The United Kingdom ruled Hong Kong for over 150 years as part of the British Empire before returning the city to Chinese jurisdiction in 1997. Under its agreement with the UK, China agreed to govern Hong Kong following the principle of “one government, two systems,” allowing the region to maintain its capitalist economy and semi-autonomous local government for 50 years, until 2047.

But the CCP began asserting greater control over Hong Kong in the mid-2010s, telling the British government China no longer considered the agreement valid. In 2014, democracy activists launched months of unprecedented demonstrations against pro-CCP changes to Hong Kong’s political system, resulting in hundreds of injuries and arrests. The dispute intensified in 2016, after multiple Hong Kong booksellers who sold literature critical of the Chinese government disappeared, sparking thousands of residents to protest against their alleged illegal detention. 

More recently, tensions escalated into a crisis in 2019 after Hong Kong’s government attempted to pass a law allowing the extradition of residents to mainland China. Fearful that the law would allow Chinese authorities to prosecute political dissidents without the remaining due process protections of Hong Kong law, hundreds of thousands of activists took to the streets in the largest pro-democracy protests on Chinese territory since Tiananmen Square.

The protests evolved into a months-long and increasingly violent conflict, as police used brutal tactics against demonstrators, and militant protesters responded by targeting officers with bricks, incendiary devices and other deadly weapons.

FRONTLINE covered the fight for Hong Kong’s future in the February 2020 documentary Battle for Hong Kong, which followed five young pro-democracy protesters.

“We want to choose our future by ourselves,” activist Agnes Chow told FRONTLINE in the film. 

Chow, 24, was sentenced to 10 months in prison in December for her involvement in a June 2019 protest.

Another protester, part of a hardline segment who call themselves “the braves,” was filmed shooting arrows at police and argued that violence was necessary for the protest movement to survive.

“What we’re doing now will be seen by society as f—ing violent,” he told FRONTLINE in the film. “But if it wasn’t for the ‘braves,’ the movement wouldn’t have lasted as long.”

The Chinese government, which passed a new security law covering Hong Kong in June 2020 after protests derailed the local government’s efforts to do so, has described demonstrators as “radicals,” “thugs” and “separatists.” In January, Hong Kong police arrested 53 activists and former legislators under the law, accusing them of illegally participating in the electoral process.

And last month, the Hong Kong government announced a broad set of regulations for schools, including the launch of “national security education” and measures to promote Chinese national identity among the city’s children. Teachers are required to tell students that “as far as national security is concerned, there is no room for debate or compromise,” according to rules published by Hong Kong’s Education Bureau.

Stream Battle for Hong Kong in its entirety below.

Dan Glaun, Former Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

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