The arrest of more than 50 Democrats in Hong Kong last week intensifies Beijing’s drive to stifle any return of a populist challenge to Chinese rule and further steps are likely, said two people with direct knowledge of the China’s projects to Reuters news agency.
While stressing that the plans had not been finalized, the individuals said it was possible that the elections in Hong Kong – already postponed to September due to coronavirus reasons – could face reforms which one person said. , aimed to reduce the influence of Democrats.
The two, who have extensive senior experience in Hong Kong affairs and represent Beijing’s interests, spoke on condition of anonymity.
Beijing’s involvement has been “substantial” in leading and coordinating actions with the Hong Kong government, one of the people, a senior Chinese official, said.
He told Reuters that the latest arrests were part of an ongoing wave of actions to silence activists and “to make sure Hong Kong doesn’t fall back to what we saw 18 months ago,” when huge protests marked the most daring public revolt against the Chinese leadership since the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989.
China has been “too patient for too long and must settle things once and for all,” he added, saying more difficult measures would be deployed for “at least a year”.
A spokesperson for Hong Kong’s Managing Director Carrie Lam said the implementation of a national security law last June restored stability and reduced violence on the streets.
“The legitimate rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong have been respected and criminals are brought to justice by our independent judiciary,” he said in an email response to Reuters, without answering questions about the role. from Beijing.
Hong Kong elections are slated for Sept. 5 and officials are working to ensure an open, fair and honest ballot, he added.
The Chinese government did not respond to requests for comment.
The Chinese official said Beijing remained concerned that the opposition could still muster a majority in the legislature if the elections were to go, given a lingering wave of public support.
Chinese officials were now discussing ways to change the electoral system to address “deficiencies” in the political structure, he said, and the elections could be further delayed.
The second pro-Beijing source confirmed that there had been advanced talks on structural changes to Hong Kong’s political system, including the possibility of reducing Democrats’ influence on an electoral committee of 1,200 people to select the next one. ruler of Hong Kong in 2022.
“It will probably shake the whole political base,” the source said of the reforms.
Lam’s spokesperson said authorities are considering using electronic voting and installing polling and counting stations in mainland China to allow registered voters to vote.
Any changes to electoral laws to further isolate the opposition would now be procedurally guaranteed, with the legislature now controlled by pro-Beijing politicians following a massive resignation of Democrats from the legislature last November.
Since the introduction of the new security law, authorities have arrested 93 opposition figures under the law, frozen activist assets, confiscated phones, computers and travel documents, disqualified some lawmakers and suppressed the media. Hundreds of people have fled into exile.
Six high-profile Democrats interviewed by Reuters expressed fears over what they called a grim prospect since the last arrests.
Among the next steps the authorities could focus on, they said, are the disqualification of hundreds of democratic “district councilors” who dominate the popular political arena; to root loyalty to China in the civil service; squeeze companies whose bosses explicitly support the democratic cause; and rampant Internet and media censorship under the auspices of national security.
Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly stated that the security law will only target a small minority of “troublemakers”.
Beijing refuses to restrict rights and freedoms in the territory of 7.6 million people and has opposed criticism of arrests since the imposition of the security law as “a serious interference in sovereignty and business. internal China ‘.
“Hong Kong has entered a harsh winter,” said Benny Tai, a former law professor who has been a key strategist for the camp, who was arrested in last week’s crackdown. “The wind is blowing strong and cold.”
When the city returned to Chinese rule by the British in 1997, Chinese leaders agreed in a mini-constitution to grant the city a high degree of autonomy and the extended freedoms prohibited in mainland China, including liberty. expression, assembly and ultimately full democracy. .
Yam Kai-bong, a Tai Po district councilor with pro-democracy localist New Democrats, said the specter of protracted legal proceedings related to the arrests could frighten or weaken the opposition camp’s chances in the next election .
“It is very clear that the authorities, this time around, want to cast a net to capture all those who may have planned to run in the upcoming elections – if they even take place – and to make it very difficult for them to run for office.