What does it mean to be a patriot in modern China? Can someone love the country while opposing the ruling Communist Party?
Those questions could spell the end for any last vestiges of democracy in Hong Kong, as the government moved to introduce new requirements for public officials Tuesday, including that they swear loyalty oaths and embrace Beijing’s rule over the city.
Anyone who fails to take the oath – or is deemed to have done so in an insincere fashion – would be immediately disqualified from office and banned from running in elections for the next five years, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang said.
Tsang said that under the proposed new oath requirements, anyone standing for election at any level must embrace national sovereignty and security, and embrace the fact that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China.
In practice, the concept of “patriotism” could be even broader, extending not only to the country, but to the ruling Communist Party.
“You cannot say that you are patriotic but you do not love the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party or you do not respect it – this does not make sense,” Tsang said, according to Reuters. “Patriotism is holistic love.”
The new guidelines come one day after a senior Beijing official overseeing Hong Kong affairs called for major electoral reforms to ensure only patriots can take office.
Similar loyalty tests have already been used to bar multiple pro-democracy candidates from standing for the city’s legislature, including Joshua Wong, now in jail, and to eject elected lawmakers from the body.
The new requirements come in the wake of a national security law imposed on the city last year by Beijing, which banned secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces, and has been used to crack down heavily on the city’s opposition movement.
One target of the law has been Hong Kong politicians who used their positions to lobby foreign governments to push for greater democracy in the city, or impose sanctions against officials in Hong Kong and Beijing responsible for cracking down on protests. Last year, former pro-democracy legislator Ted Hui fled to the United Kingdom rather than face likely arrest for such efforts.
Social contract rewritten
Senior Chinese government officials routinely insist that to oppose the Communist Party is to oppose China itself, but codifying such a requirement would be a drastic rewriting of the social contract that has governed Hong Kong since it was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997.
For many, the roots of that understanding can be traced to a 1984 speech by Deng Xiaoping, in which the Chinese paramount leader said Hong Kong should be run by “patriots.”
“What is a patriot? A patriot is one who respects the Chinese nation, sincerely supports the motherland’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong and wishes not to impair Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability,” he said. “Those who meet these requirements are patriots, whether they believe in capitalism or feudalism or even slavery. We don’t demand that they be in favor of China’s socialist system; we only ask them to love the motherland and Hong Kong.”
Many Hong Kong activists who pushed for democracy under British rule were staunch Chinese patriots, even nationalists, and embraced the city’s handover to China, while continuing to advocate for greater representation. The city’s annual memorial for the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the biggest repudiation of the Communist Party and a major symbol of Hong Kong’s autonomy from Beijing, is organized by a group called the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China.
While in the past, Beijing has made clear that Deng’s test definitely does not include anyone advocating for Hong Kong independence (unlike, say, the British or Canadian parliaments, both of which seat separatist lawmakers), criticism of the Communist Party, even a refusal to acknowledge the party as legitimate, has never before been deemed to be unpatriotic.
Almost all opposition politicians could struggle to clear such a bar, as returning officers have previously used past statements and election materials to disqualify candidates, regardless of whether they have since disavowed them.
No room for dissent
While Hong Kong’s main legislature – where only around 50% of seats were elected in the first place – has already been effectively neutered, the new oath requirements would go even further.
As Tsang made clear, this law is aimed squarely at the city’s district councils, local bodies with little power that have nevertheless taken on major symbolic importance both for the fact that they are freely elected and for the nominal say they have in choosing the city’s leader.
District councilors choose 117 members of a 1,200-seat committee which selects the person who will run the city (under Beijing’s tight supervision) and could, hypothetically, hold the balance of power in a close race.
Such an upset is extremely unlikely: almost all other seats on the selection committee are controlled by Beijing allies, and government-friendly candidates could be forced to step aside if there is any chance of a split vote. But after a landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates in district council elections in 2019, even a small possibility of embarrassment appears to be enough for Beijing to neuter the local bodies entirely.
When the new requirements are passed by the legislature – a done deal, given all pro-democracy members quit the body last year in protest over the expulsion of several of their colleagues – it will likely mean four incumbent district councilors immediately lose their seats, since they were already deemed insufficiently patriotic to stand for election to the higher body.
One of those four, Lester Shum, a former leader of 2014 pro-democracy protests known as the Umbrella Movement, told CNN last year he felt it was only a matter of time before he was ejected. Reacting to the news Tuesday, he said it was “as expected.”
“They’re completely strangling any space for dissent,” he said. Another soon-to-be-expelled district councilor, Tiffany Yuen, former vice chair of Joshua Wong’s since-disbanded Demosisto party, said the move was “ridiculous, as usual.”
She thanked her staff, “for your willingness to accompany me in this unstable job,” adding that on the day she took office, “I promised to make Tin Wan better, and I did not violate that oath.”
CNN’s Eric Cheung contributed reporting.