Beijing sharpens nails for democracy coffin

Top News | REUTERS 13 Jan 2021

The arrest of more than 50 pan-democrats last week intensifies a drive by Beijing to stifle any challenge to Beijing rule and more measures are said to be likely.

While stressing that plans are not finalized, two people who represent mainland interests here said it is possible that Legislative Council elections - already postponed until September on coronavirus grounds - could face reforms aimed at further reducing democratic ideas.

One of the pair, a China official, said the latest arrests were part of a program to "make sure Hong Kong doesn't slide back to what we saw 18 months ago," when demonstrations swept the SAR.

Beijing was "too patient for too long and needs to sort things out once and for all," he added, and more tough moves will be rolling out for "at least a year."

Beijing remains concerned democrats could still muster a majority in the legislature should the polls go ahead, he said, given a lingering groundswell of public support.

So officials were discussing ways to change the electoral system to address "deficiencies" in the political structure, and elections might be delayed further.

The second source said talks were at an advanced stage on changes to the political system, including curtailing the influence of democrats on the 1,200-strong Election Committee choosing the next leader in 2022.

"It will likely shake up the whole political base," the source added.

In any event, any changes to laws to further isolate the opposition are guaranteed with Legco now controlled by pro-Beijing figures.

Since the national security law was introduced in June, authorities have arrested 93 opposition figures under the legislation, frozen activists' assets, confiscated phones, computers and travel documents, disqualified some lawmakers and targeted media.

Hundreds have fled into exile.

Among the next steps authorities could focus on, senior democratic figures said, are disqualifying hundreds of democratic district councilors who dominate the grassroots political arena, entrenching loyalty to Being within the civil service, squeezing businesses whose bosses back democratic causes, and creeping censorship of the media.

Yet authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have claimed repeatedly the security law only targets a small minority of "troublemakers."

Beijing denies curbing rights and freedoms and labels any criticism of the arrests as "grave interference."

Hong Kong has seen many of those who challenged China's authoritarian grip targeted under the security law. "Hong Kong has entered a harsh winter," said Benny Tai Yiu-ting, a former law professor who has been a key strategist for the camp, after his arrest. "The wind is blowing fierce and cold."

Yam Kai-bong, a Tai Po district councilor with the Neo Democrats, said the specter of protracted legal proceedings related to the arrests could scare off or weaken the opposition camp's chances in any upcoming election.

"It's very clear that the authorities, this time, want to cast one net to capture all those who may have been planning to contest the upcoming elections - if they even take place - and to make it very difficult for them to run."

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