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Hong Kong: Beijing Rigs Legislative By-Elections

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As widely feared the Chinese dictatorship has begun blocking pro-democracy candidates from standing in upcoming by-elections in Hong Kong to fill four of the seats left empty after the ousting of six opposition legislators last year. The move is the latest instalment in a creeping coup against the mass democracy movement.

Agnes Chow Ting, a 21-year-old spokesperson for Demosisto, a small student-led party with connections to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, has had her candidature for the by-election rejected on orders from Hong Kong’s Beijing-controlled government. Chow would have been almost certain to win back the seat, on Hong Kong Island, that was stripped last year from her party colleague, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, the chairman of Demosisto.

The three other by-elections, all to be held on 11 March, are in West Kowloon and New Territories East, both geographical constituencies like Hong Kong Island, and in the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape functional constituency. Half the 70 seats in the Legislative Council (Legco) are assigned to undemocratic small-circle functional constituencies, reserved for big business and professional groups.

Nathan Law was one of six opposition legislators who were ousted from the Legco in the “Oathgate” affair. The six, whose politics are deemed undesirable by the Chinese regime, were retroactively disqualified on the initiative of the government using the law courts to rule their oath-taking as insufficiently “sincere”. It has become a tradition for some opposition legislators as a from of protest to add words to the oath like “democracy” and “universal suffrage” when being sworn in. The disqualifications followed an intervention from the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s so-called parliament which is no more than an echo chamber for the dictatorship.

Eliminating the ‘radicals’

Law and colleague Joshua Wong Chi-fung were both also imprisoned last year on “unlawful assembly” charges along with 14 other democracy activists. This was part of a government orchestrated ‘pincer movement’ designed to eliminate the more radical sections of Hong Kong’s democracy struggle from competing in future elections. Anyone jailed for more than three months is ineligible to stand in elections for five years.

Other radical pro-democracy parties such as the League of Social Democrats, fronted by ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung, have similarly been targeted for a combination of jail sentences and electoral disqualification, which is designed to keep them out of the Legco. The government hopes that by thus denying them a public platform and the financial resources that a Legco seat confers, and throwing their leading activists in prison, it can eradicate the more radical parliamentary groups leaving only ‘moderate’ and more malleable forces to speak for the democracy movement.

A Hong Kong government statement on Saturday 27 January announced the ban on Chow’s candidacy claiming she “cannot possibly comply” with election law requirements to uphold Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and the ‘one country two systems’ arrangement under which Hong Kong has been ruled by China since 1997. The ‘evidence’ used to exclude Chow is Demosisto’s 2016 manifesto which calls for “self determination”.

While Demosisto and Chow deny this means support for independence from China, and in fact have many times distanced themselves from groups that do advocate independence, Beijing has declared that it all means the same thing and so “violates” the Basic Law. In fact there is no such proscription on calling for independence in the Basic Law, which also purports to guarantee freedom of speech. In recent weeks, fearing a ban, Demosisto changed the “about us” section of its website to delete the statement in Chinese, “Demosisto adopts ‘democratic self-determination’ as the highest agenda”.

It was also widely feared that another pan-democrat, Edward Yiu Chung-yim, would be banned from standing in the by-elections. Yiu was one of the six disqualified from the Legco last year. He has been nominated to contest the West Kowloon constituency and right until the final day of nominations he had not received approval to run.

The same day that Chow was banned, Yiu was sent four questions by the ‘impartial’ election officials and told that his answers would determine whether or not he was eligible to run. The questions included whether he accepted the NPC Standing Committee’s ruling on oath-taking, which formed the basis for the disqualification of himself and five other legislators. Another question related to a visit he made to Taiwan in 2016 as a guest of the pro-independence New Power Party. There is no basis under Hong Kong’s electoral laws for such political vetting of Legco candidates.

On Monday 29 January, the election authorities announced that Yiu would be allowed to run. Rather than supporting the government’s line that it is only following legal procedures in relation to the by-elections, the decision to block Chow but not Yiu is tactical, to defuse an even bigger backlash within society and give an illusion of legality, each case weighed on its “own merits”. Put simply, Chow and Demosisto represented a bigger fish than Yiu who was a relative unknown within the democracy movement ahead of his disqualification last year. It’s possible, but not certain, that the pandemonium caused by Chow/Demosisto’s exclusion, including within the legal profession and international news media, caused the government to stop at one opposition candidate rather than bag a brace.

Unfortunately, there is nothing about the way the government or the election authorities (who admit they took “advice” from the government) have acted that excludes further undemocratic bans in future, either of prominent pro-democracy figures in general or other disqualified legislators like ‘Long Hair’ and Lau Siu-lai in particular. On the contrary, every new attack suggests the government is moving incrementally, taking one step at a time, pausing to absorb the reaction and then preparing its next move. The seats of ‘Long Hair’ and Lau are not among the four to be contested in March because the appeal court has still to hear the case against their disqualification.

Election rigging

“The decision to block Agnes Chow and [possibly] Edward Yiu is the second phase of election rigging for the Legco,” said Pasha of Socialist Action (CWI in Hong Kong).

“The first wave was when the government organised the disqualification of the six legislators, nullifying more than 12 percent of the total votes cast in the 2016 Legco elections. The decision to rig the by-elections in this way makes it clear that unless the current corrupt and undemocratic government is brought down there will be nothing remotely resembling free or fair elections in Hong Kong. It’s all basically fixed from now on,” he said.

Reactions to the ban on Chow have been swift and furious. Demosisto issued a statement saying the disqualification was “illegal and groundless” and “payback against an entire generation”. The youth who helped to spark the Umbrella Movement protests, bypassing the more conservative and reticent pan-democratic parties and leaders, are the main targets of the current political repression.

Joshua Wong of Demosisto, who was sentenced to a second jail term last week for another Umbrella Movement-related ‘offence’, explained how the government has tightened the ring of repressive rules around the opposition:

“Two years ago, only nominees promoting independence were banned. Now, people advocating ‘self-determination’ are permanently banned from running. No one knows if Beijing will redraw the red line so that all pan-democrats who oppose the legislation of Article 23 [an anti-subversion law] will be banned as well.”

Wong’s warning needs to be heeded. Unless a movement is built that can repel the government’s onslaught, future elections could exclude candidates who oppose Article 23, because that’s also part of “upholding the Basic Law”, or oppose the infamous NPC ruling of 31 August, 2014, which laid down “fake universal suffrage” for Hong Kong, thus triggering the Umbrella mass protests.

Step-by-step repression

As an example of how the government’s case is shot through with falsehoods, Nathan Law was not blocked from standing in the 2016 elections and was subsequently elected as the youngest ever lawmaker, despite standing on the same manifesto that Chow has now been disqualified for. Law, as we know, was ejected from the Legco much later on an entirely different pretext – his allegedly “invalid oath”.

In the 2016 Legco elections the government introduced a new loyalty pledge for candidates and this was used to disqualify five candidates, even some who signed the pledge, all from the ‘localist’ pro-independence layer. The government was testing the ground and only targeting the fringes. Even the majority of ‘localist’ candidates were not blocked from standing at that time.

What has changed? Only the timing. Had the government in 2016 moved to ban Demosisto from standing, as it has now done, or instigated a broader purge of ‘radical’ candidates such as those subsequently disqualified after winning their seats, this would have triggered a massive popular backlash. That could have unleashed a landslide defeat of the pro-Beijing establishment in the elections.

As it was, the opposition increased its share of the total vote from 56 percent to almost 60 percent in the 2016 elections, handing the pro-government camp its biggest electoral setback for 20 years. These elections as we explained at the time manifested a very clear ‘Umbrella factor’ coming just two years after the 79-day-long mass struggle. Of course, because of the ‘gerrymandered’ structure of the Legco, the government camp still emerged from the elections with 40 seats against the opposition’s 30.

“Mass action is the only answer”

The government has tried to cover its political repression with a veneer of ‘legality’. But this is fooling fewer and fewer people. Maya Wang of NGO Human Rights Watch was clear: “The contorted legal arguments advanced by the Hong Kong government in disqualifying Chow can barely hide the political intentions of its decision: that this is another act in Beijing’s play to chip away Hong Kong’s autonomy.”

A hastily called mass protest outside the Legco on Sunday evening drew a crowd of 2,000. Socialist Action (CWI in Hong Kong) has again raised the need for a one-day Hong Kong-wide strike as the only measure powerful enough to challenge the government’s deepening authoritarian crackdown. Students, who last week staged protests against the suspension of two student representatives at Baptist University for their part in a dispute over Mandarin language tests, are a key layer who could lead the way by building for a city-wide school strike to defend democratic rights.

With Chow ruled out of running it seems former Democratic Party politician Au Nok-hin will be nominated to replace her as the standard bearer of the pan-democratic opposition, although he has no connection to Demosisto and does not really fit the political profile of the layers that support Demosisto. These have been disenfranchised.

By manipulating the elections in this way, inventing new rules as it goes along, the government is excluding not just the more radical opposition groups but also their hundreds of thousands of voters. These groups are forced, in the interests of keeping out the pro-government candidates, to relinquish their seats and voters to more ‘moderate’ opposition candidates who haven’t fallen foul of Beijing’s screening criteria. But the ‘moderates’ have progressively lost support and credibility among big sections of the democratically-minded electorate.

The ‘radicals’ gained 25 percent of the total vote in 2016 (567,000 votes). They are a collection of very diverse groups distinguished not so much by ideology (ranging from mild left to far right in the case of the ‘localists’) as by their more combative stance towards fighting the Chinese dictatorship’s growing control. Groups like Demosisto, which does not stand for much else other than opposition to the current authoritarian regime, emerged because of growing frustration among the masses over the passivity and lack of fight of the traditional liberal pan-democratic parties. This was especially after the failure of the Umbrella Movement to win any democratic concessions from the government.

“The government have clearly had a strategy since the end of the Umbrella Movement,” says Socialist Action’s Pasha.

“They are using a combination of election screening, disqualifications, political trials and jail sentences in an attempt to kill off the democracy movement, starting with its most struggle-orientated layers. This is also a preparation for a new push to introduce Article 23, to fully ‘mainlandise’ Hong Kong’s political system which can only be stopped by determined mass action such as strike action.”

How to rebuild the mass struggle?

Since the authoritarian onslaught began, at first cautiously in the prelude to the 2016 elections, then accelerating immediately afterwards, the leaders of the main pan-democratic parties have offered no fight back other than verbal protests. In this they are continuing where they left off during the Umbrella Movement, which they ‘supported’ rather nervously and uncomfortably while seeking to contain the movement and guard against ‘radicalism’.

Similarly, the pan-democrats have approached the by-elections in a business-as-usual manner despite it being clear that the government was totally capable of employing more dirty tricks to rig the outcome. Its aim is that even if establishment candidates are not capable of winning these seats, which is unlikely in five of six cases, the seats will not be allowed to fall back into ‘radical’ hands.

Lacking a clear perspective, many sections of the movement are stunned by the de facto banning of Demosisto as an electoral force. Endless time has been expended on closed-door pan-democratic discussions over a ‘Plan A’, ‘Plan B’, and ‘Plan C’ – to line up substitute candidates – rather than rousing the masses and warning of the high probability the by-elections will be rigged and that this in turn may become the “new normal” for Legco elections in the future.

We warned already last year, in July, just one week after the court’s disqualification of four legislators, that the by-elections could be manipulated by the government and therefore, while the by-elections were important, it would be a mistake to make them the main or sole focus of activity:

“It also makes it much more difficult for the opposition to fully reverse this attack in the by-elections, which can be further delayed and held under extremely undemocratic conditions – by banning some or all of the disqualified legislators, and by holding the by-elections simultaneously to increase the pro-government camp’s chances.” [ 21 July 2017]

What we said last year: For a mass campaign of resistance against the Legco coup

The Chinese dictatorship, the power that really decides, does not want to see the Legco purge of last year overturned through the ballot box. That would represent an embarrassing political defeat for the regime and a victory for the masses, which could then translate into further challenges to the authoritarian agenda, such as the ongoing political clamp down on university campuses and of course the plans for Article 23.

The only way to successfully resist the government’s anti-democratic manoeuvres is to build a mass campaign of civil disobedience, which must recognise the true character of the current political regime and draw the necessary conclusions. The lesson from the failure of the Umbrella Movement is that, despite its enormous potential, it held to a one-sided faith in occupying the streets, as if this could ever be enough to defeat a regime like the Chinese dictatorship. At no time before or since has there been a serious discussion on the need to organise strike action, starting for example with a mass students’ strike, and then building towards a territory-wide general strike to demand the resignation of the unelected election-rigging government.

This would need to raise the demand for immediate free and fair elections to a genuine People’s Assembly to replace the undemocratic and powerless Legco, and the formation of a government of the working class majority committed to a programme of sweeping social change to bring about affordable housing, rent control, a universal pension system, big increases in poverty-level wages, and to completely break the stranglehold of a few pro-Beijing capitalist tycoons over Hong Kong’s economy.

Such a movement even in a territory of just 7.3 millions would echo like a nuclear explosion across the border in China, inspiring the long-suffering Chinese masses to join the anti-authoritarian struggle. And that of course is what’s called a game changer.

Stop Repression in Hong Kong

Stop Repression in Hong Kong is an international campaign which Socialist Action helped to initiate, appealing for solidarity protests from workers’ and youth organisations around the world. The campaign staged protests in 22 cities worldwide from Berlin to Colombo to Vancouver last October against the Chinese state’s repression in Hong Kong. Socialists and left members of parliament in Ireland and Germany, and leading trade unionists in Mexico, South Africa and Britain have signed the online petition to support democratic rights in Hong Kong and China.

Sign the petition here

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