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Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive, speaks during a news conference in Hong Kong, China, on December 20, 2021. Picture: BLOOMBERG/PAUL YEUNG
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive, speaks during a news conference in Hong Kong, China, on December 20, 2021. Picture: BLOOMBERG/PAUL YEUNG

Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam touted plans to revive a controversial security law that ignited a political firestorm two decades ago, after completing an election to install a new legislature filled with Beijing loyalists.

The pro-establishment council elected in a muted vote on Sunday should present “new proposals” by June on how to enact security legislation, Lam told a news briefing on Monday, after the results were announced. While the former British colony recorded its lowest-ever voter turnout — 30.2% — as swathes of the public boycotted the electoral system recently revamped by Beijing, the result empowers Lam to pass once-difficult legislation unopposed.

A provision of Hong Kong’s charter drafted before its return to Chinese rule in 1997 requires a law banning “foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities,” as well as, “treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets.” Such legislation has been shelved since huge street protests in 2003. 

Chinese authorities cited the failure to pass the “Article 23” legislation as justification for their decision to impose a national security law on the city in June 2020. While that measure prohibited subversion, secession, colluding with foreign forces and terrorist activities, it lacked language on treason, sedition and theft of state secrets. 

“It’s the constitutional responsibility of the SAR government,” Lam said on Monday, referring to Hong Kong’s status as a special administrative region. “For a long time, we haven’t done that.”

Updated proposals were needed, Lam said, since the internet had brought new security threats and the “overall situation” of Hong Kong had changed since the last effort to pass Article 23. Lam, who hasn’t said yet whether she’ll seek a second term when her current five-year stint expires in June, was slated on Monday to leave for Beijing to brief state leaders on Hong Kong’s situation.

Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam touted plans to revive a controversial security law that ignited a political firestorm two decades ago. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam touted plans to revive a controversial security law that ignited a political firestorm two decades ago. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Purged opposition

Lam stopped short of detailing a timetable for passing the legislation, saying it was “not realistic” to expect lawmakers to approve such a measure before their upcoming session ends six months from now. That said, the body has moved quickly on several major proposals in recent months with opposition members out of the chamber. 

“Article 23 will likely be an extension of China’s national security standards and ways of doing things to Hong Kong,” said Kenneth Chan, associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University. “Having purged the democracy movement and civil society, it will be very hard for citizens to get organised to voice their opinions or oppose Article 23.”

On Monday, Lam said was she was “happy” with the election result, despite a government campaign to boost voting rates falling short. Free public transport on Sunday saw the city’s network flooded as citizens inundated leisure attractions such as Ocean Park and Disneyland, rather than ballot boxes. 

Authorities arrested 10 people for inciting others to cast blank votes before the election, and issued arrest warrants for at least five others on the same grounds, as they tried to protect voter turnout.

Just 1.35-million people out of almost 4.5-million registered eligible voters cast their ballot. In the professional groups that picked 30 candidates, turnout wasn’t much higher, at 32.2%. The 1,448-member pro-Beijing committee that chooses 40 lawmakers saw a 98.5% turnout. 

“I’m satisfied with this election,” Lam said at a regular press briefing on Monday, dismissing the low turnout. “Particularly to ensure patriots governing the city.”

The government’s earlier postponement of Sunday’s vote due to Covid-19 restrictions prevented the opposition riding a growing wave of momentum at the ballot box. The democracy camp won its greatest-ever share of seats in the previous legislative vote, and scored a landslide in the 2019 District Council elections.

During that delay, the central government shrunk the number of directly elected lawmakers to 20 and introduced the 40 seats picked by Beijing loyalists. In May, the city’s legislature approved a China-drafted plan to vet all candidates for respect for the Communist Party.

Both moves came in the wake of widespread government protests in 2019, and wiped the pro-democracy opposition politicians who had supported that unrest from the legislature. Only one of the 90 lawmakers elected Sunday wasn’t a pro-establishment figure, with Tik Chi-yuen in the social welfare constituency representing the moderate Third Side party. 

“All LegCo members are now patriots who are devoted to the Basic Law and the Hong Kong government despite their backgrounds,” Starry Lee, head of the pro-Beijing party Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said Monday.

“Even between patriots, there’ll be different views on policies, ways to solve problems and how to advocate change in the government. I believe there’ll be various opinions during policy debate,” she added.

Dongshu Liu, assistant professor specialising in Chinese politics at City University of Hong Kong, said if the opposition movement wanted to participate in future elections it would be severely clipped.

“So that’s very much like the opposition in Singapore, where you do have opposition to government polices, but not challenging the fundamental political institution,” he added, noting that the legislature would get “further away from what society actually wants.”  

“That’s a bigger danger,” he added. “The political divide will sooner or later be a problem. You can’t suppress the unhappy people forever.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com
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