Chinese Premier Li Keqiang speaks during the opening session of China's National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Friday, March 5, 2021. China's No. 2 leader has set a healthy economic growth target and vowed to make this nation self-reliant in technology amid tension with Washington and Europe over trade and human rights. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
What's on the agenda for China's annual political meeting?
03:12 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Joy Park is the legal counsel for Asia at the Human Rights Foundation and leads its Hong Kong Desk project. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Two Fridays ago, the annual National People’s Congress convened in Beijing to rubber-stamp the Chinese Communist Party’s policies. Unfortunately for Hong Kong, restructuring the city’s electoral process topped the agenda.

Clues had come in a recent speech by Xia Baolong, the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. Xia stressed that all three branches of the Hong Kong government – executive, legislative, and judicial – must be run by “patriots.” He also called for implementing “patriotism” in Hong Kong’s official requirement for public servants, so that it can be better enforced in the future.

Last week, China’s rubber-stamp parliament approved those changes, as expected. (The Hong Kong government is now debating them, though this process is expected to be a formality.)

The NPC didn’t change rules surrounding Hong Kong’s judiciary, but given that Xia had also mentioned applying a similar “patriotism” standard to Hong Kong’s judges, we can probably expect Beijing will apply more pressure to Hong Kong’s court system, in addition to the electoral changes it just enacted.

Patriotism has long been equated with loyalty to the party in China, where the Chinese Communist Party is propagandized as synonymous with China, the country. To be a patriot in China is to support the party’s policy and direction without question; critique of the party is conversely portrayed as betraying the country.

While this idea of blind patriotism has been fundamentally incorporated into mainland China’s society through decades of indoctrination, it is often rejected in Hong Kong, where freedom of speech and freedom of political participation were the norm until recently. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rule, the CCP increasingly sees Hong Kong’s democratic foundation as a hindrance to its total control of the city. Two important pillars that support this foundation are Hong Kong’s partially free elections and its much-lauded judiciary. To ensure complete control of Hong Kong, then, the CCP has now moved to dismantle these democratic mechanisms completely.

Since the 2019 pro-democracy protests, the CCP has sped up the undemocratic reforms in Hong Kong. In the electoral process, though Beijing loyalists have always dominated the Legislative Council, also known as LegCo, there was still space for pro-democracy legislators to influence government policies. At the local level, District Council elections were largely free and fair and saw pro-democracy candidates succeed. However, perhaps surprised by the global success of the protest movement in the past two years, the CCP set its sights on doing away with the entire pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong.

To set the stage, the CCP rolled out a national security law in record time last year, without consulting the Hong Kong government and in contravention of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. (Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has maintained that the Basic Law has not been violated.) Then, in January, the police conducted mass arrests of pro-democracy lawmakers, accusing them of violating the national security law. At the end of February, 47 of the arrested 53 people, many of them lawmakers or activists, were detained upon reporting to police stations and charged with “conspiracy to commit subversion” for their participation in an unofficial primary election last year. (Not all remain in detention, as some have been granted bail.) Pro-democracy primaries have been lawfully carried out in Hong Kong in years prior. The bail hearings for the arrested lawmakers are ongoing.

Another pillar of Hong Kong’s democratic foundation is its judicial system, put in place by the colonial British government before the handover in 1997. The impartial nature of the judiciary was put on display during the 2019 protests, when a number of principled judges refused to entertain the trumped-up charges of rioting brought by the Hong Kong government against peaceful protesters, as the city saw a mix of orderly and destructive demonstrations. Long accustomed to “rule by law” as opposed to “rule of law,” the CCP is predictably unimpressed with the independence of the judiciary and its incapability to act as an accomplice in imposing authoritarianism in the city.

To better control the judicial process, the CCP altered due process via the national security law. Now, those charged under the law are to be tried by a judge handpicked by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, likely allowing the Beijing-loyal executive branch to influence trial outcomes. (In Hong Kong, not all judges are from the city; some are British or Australian.) In Xia’s speech, the expectation for Hong Kong’s judges is even more clearly outlined – Xia states that judicial personnel must all be “true patriots.”

As many of the 47 lawmakers sit in detention centers, the CCP has dealt the last blow to Hong Kong’s democratic pillars. At this point, it may be inevitable for Hong Kong to suffer a total loss of democracy, but international response to the CCP’s actions still matters. Young activists in exile, such as Nathan Law, Sunny Cheung, and Glacier Kwong, have long called for continued attention toward Hong Kong’s struggles, and for stronger sanctions from the United States and European Union governments.

EU leaders and the Biden administration must listen to these calls and respond strongly. They must not let Hong Kong’s democracy be destroyed in silence.