Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong in 2019. Picture: REUTERS
Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong in 2019. Picture: REUTERS

Why has Beijing muzzled an already toothless creature? Not because it fears its bite, but to ensure others fear China’s power. Though Hong Kong’s legislative council offered the region a taste of democracy, its powers have always been extremely limited. The body is dominated by pro-Beijing members, thanks to a carefully structured system for choosing legislators, with half directly elected by ordinary residents. In recent years pro-democracy politicians have been disqualified from running, or removed from the body after winning office.

That used to require judicial proceedings. Now it needs Beijing’s say-so. On Wednesday, minutes after China passed a law allowing the removal of “unpatriotic” legislators, the region’s government disqualified four pro-democracy members. The rest of their caucus resigned en masse. This year’s imposition of the draconian national security law had sounded the death knell for Hong Kong’s autonomy. Now, the authorities no longer want even the facade of democratic debate. CEO Carrie Lam, who recently said there was no separation of powers in Hong Kong, insisted there was no shame in a legislature lacking an opposition. “We are more excited when bills are passed more efficiently,” she said.

District councillors, a level down in the political system, may well be next in line given the landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates in elections a year ago. The ousting of legislative council members is a part of the campaign to cow dissent after 2019’s extraordinary protests, which, at their height, saw one in four people take to the streets. The national security law was a decisive blow to Hong Kong’s freedoms, and since then repression has sharply escalated.

Schools, libraries and booksellers have been told to remove books that might break the new law. Hong Kong University sacked the leading legal scholar and activist Benny Tai. Teachers, too, are under growing scrutiny. Last week a journalist was charged over her work on a report relating to alleged police misconduct during the 2019 protests. The judiciary, seen by many as the last line of defence — and essential to Hong Kong’s status as an international financial centre — is also under attack. Opposition in the legislature is over, but resistance in society endures. /London, November 11

The Guardian

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