Hong Kong (CNN)Hong Kong's decision to bar 12 pro-democracy candidates from standing in now postponed elections has raised serious concerns over whether genuine political opposition will be tolerated in the city following the imposition of a new security law by Beijing.
Hong Kong is setting up a postponed election without a real opposition
A special administrative region (SAR) of China, Hong Kong has a partially-autonomous political and legal system, including a limited form of democracy evolved from its days under British colonial rule.
Those limits and the inability of the government to continue a transition to full democracy have long been criticized by the city's opposition, and sparked mass protest movements.
And certainly, there is a lot to take issue with.
The city's leader is selected by a tiny committee drawn mostly from Hong Kong's elite. Half of the legislature is made up of functional constituencies, representing not voters but business and special interest groups. And the city's government is staffed not by elected officials, but career bureaucrats.
On Thursday, the limits of democracy within this system seemed to contract further, as the government barred a dozen candidates from standing in legislative elections, and warned that more disqualifications were coming.
The election -- which had been scheduled for September 6, but on Friday was postponed for 12 months due to the government citing coronavirus concerns -- will be the first since a new national security law came into effect, criminalizing secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference.
That law has already had a major chilling effect, and may have stopped the city's protest movement in its tracks. The government now appears to be coming after its critics within the legislature.
Those affected by the ban include activist Joshua Wong, a leader of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, and other former student protesters, but also mainstream candidates from pro-democracy parties and multiple moderate incumbent lawmakers, including Dennis Kwok and Alvin Yeung.
While candidates have been barred from standing in the past, and some even removed from office once elected, the large number of those barred this week, and the broad justifications given for doing so, raise questions over whether it is possible to have meaningful opposition in Hong Kong.
While the decisions to bar 12 legislators were made by returning officers in their various constituencies -- low level bureaucrats -- both the Hong Kong and Chinese governments quickly put out statements in support of the move.
Under Hong Kong's Basic Law, the city's de facto constitution, prospective legislators must swear to "uphold" the constitution, a declaration that has been largely procedural in the past.
But citing a court case in 2016 barring a pro-independence candidate, the government said in a statement that vowing to "uphold" Basic Law "denotes not just compliance with it, but also an intention to support, promote, and embrace it."
The government also gave examples of behavior that would result in disqualification, including advocating for Hong Kong independence or self-determination, or "soliciting intervention by foreign governments or political authorities."
While such behavior is tolerated in many democracies -- both the British and Canadian parliaments include openly secessionist parties for example -- all are newly illegal in Hong Kong, under the security law.