Elections for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council on Sunday mark the culmination of Beijing’s campaign to rein in the body that had once kept it from imposing its unrestrained will over the semi-autonomous territory.
Since the city was handed over from British to Chinese rule in 1997, with a promise by Beijing to keep Western-style freedoms for 50 years, demands for expanded democracy inspired protest movements in 2014 and 2019. But they were largely ignored and subsequently crushed by security forces.
Here’s a look at the events that resulted in the dramatic changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system:
The 2014 “Umbrella Movement”, Also known as “Occupy Central” for the business district where pro-democracy protesters gathered, the movement got its name from the umbrellas activists used to shield themselves from police pepper spray. Nearly 1,000 people were arrested in what marked the city’s most tumultuous period since China took control of the territory. A government proposal would have allowed the city’s 5 million eligible voters to vote for the city’s leader for the first time. But the package was rejected by pro-democracy lawmakers and activists because the power to select up to three candidates would remain in the hands of a 1,200-member group of tycoons and other elites viewed as sympathetic to the mainland Chinese government.
The government then withdrew the proposal and current Chief Executive Carrie Lam was selected by an electoral committee. In February 2019, the government introduced an extradition bill it said would plug holes in the territory’s regulations on handing over criminal suspects to jurisdictions where they were wanted, including mainland China. Opponents said that put citizens at risk of being extradited on political charges to the mainland, where legal rights are considerably weaker and where they could face torture and abuse. After street marches and limited clashes between protesters and police, Lam announced she was suspending the bill on June 15, although it was not formally withdrawn until October.
The movement snowballed into four demands, including an investigation into police tactics and the release of arrested demonstrators. Some also called for Lam to resign and said they want true universal suffrage. All demands were ignored. On July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover, hardcore demonstrators stormed the legislature. Hundreds of young protesters broke windows, defaced official symbols and spray-painted slogans. The council was not in session and officers retreated further inside the building.
As the year wore on, increasingly violent clashes erupted nightly, culminating in November in a lengthy dramatic showdown at Hong Kong Polytechnic University where students had stockpiled homemade incendiaries. Police stormed the campus, arresting more than 1,000 mostly students, and cutting off support for large protest action. Police also arrested senior opposition figures, while the pro-democracy camp won big in elections for district councilors. The movement held a symbolic primary to choose candidates for legislative elections due in September 2020 amid calls to paralyze all parliamentary activities to force concessions. Lam decided to postpone the elections, citing Covid
Chinese officials declared conditions in Hong Kong are no longer conducive for the passage of national security legislation, and the ceremonial national parliament in Beijing will act on it instead. The National People’s Congress on June 30, 2020, passed the National Security Law targeting secessionist, subversive, and terrorist activities, as well as collusion with foreign forces, with penalties of up to life imprisonment. Scuffles break out in the Hong Kong legislature, where four lawmakers were disqualified under the provisions of the new law and 15 others resigned in solidarity. Six other lawmakers were expelled earlier after altering their oaths of office.
The Chinese parliament on March 11, 2021, passes a resolution to alter Hong Kong’s election law that many saw as effectively ending the “one country, two systems” framework under which Hong Kong was to retain its separate legal, political, and financial institutions for 50 years. By a vote of 2,895-0, with one abstention, the assembly voted to give a pro-Beijing committee power to appoint more of Hong Kong’s lawmakers, reducing the proportion of those directly elected, and ensure that only those truly loyal to Beijing are allowed to run for office. The move expanded the size of the chamber from 70 to 90 seats, with members of the Election Committee, a strongly pro-Beijing body responsible for electing the chief executive, making up 40 of those. Another 30 seats are elected by business groupings known as “functional constituencies.” The number of directly elected representatives was reduced from 35 to 20. Five seats elected from among district councilors were abolished altogether.
Candidate vetting rules included in the changes ensure that anyone even suspected of being less than overwhelming loyal to Beijing will be weeded out. Hong Kong is moving toward the authoritarian Communist Party strictures in place in mainland China. The U.K. and U.S. have condemned the electoral changes while Beijing and its supporters call them mere refinements to improve efficiency. In a Dec. 7 interview with Communist Party newspaper Global Times, Lam said the elections would be “more representative with more balanced participation.” She said the goal is to elect those who are patriotic to govern the city.