The arrest of more than 50 democrats in Hong Kong last week intensifies a drive by Beijing to stifle any return of a populist challenge to Chinese rule and more measures are likely, according to two individuals with direct knowledge of China’s plans.
While stressing that plans have not been finalized, the individuals said it was possible that Hong Kong elections — already postponed until September on COVID-19 grounds — could face reforms that one person said were aimed at reducing the influence of democrats.
Both individuals, who have extensive high-level experience in Hong Kong affairs and represent Beijing’s interests, spoke on condition of anonymity.
Beijing’s involvement was “substantial” in driving and coordinating actions with the Hong Kong government, said one of the individuals, a senior Chinese official.
He said the latest arrests were part of a wave of ongoing actions to silence activists and to “make sure Hong Kong doesn’t slide back to what we saw 18 months ago.”
China has been “too patient for too long, and needs to sort things out once and for all,” he said, adding that more tough moves would be rolled out for “at least a year.”
A spokesman for Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) said the implementation of the National Security Law in June last year had restored stability and reduced street violence.
“The legitimate rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong have been upheld and criminals are brought to justice through our independent judiciary,” he said in an e-mailed response to reporters, without responding to questions about Beijing’s role.
Hong Kong elections were scheduled for Sept. 5 and officials were working to ensure an open, fair and honest poll, he added.
The Chinese government did not respond to requests for comment.
The Chinese official said Beijing remained concerned the opposition could still muster a majority in the legislature should the polls go ahead, given a lingering groundswell of public support.
Chinese officials were now discussing ways to change the electoral system to address “deficiencies” in the political structure, and elections might be further delayed, he said.
The second pro-Beijing source confirmed there were advanced talks on structural changes to Hong Kong’s political system, including possibly curtailing the influence of democrats on a 1,200-person election committee to select the next chief executive next year.
“It will likely shake up the whole political base,” the source said of the reforms.
Lam’s spokesman said authorities were exploring using electronic polling, and setting up polling and counting stations in mainland China to allow registered electors there to vote.
Six senior democratic figures voiced fears over what they described as a grim outlook since the most recent arrests.
Among the next steps might be disqualifying hundreds of democratic “district councilors” who dominate the grassroots political arena; entrenching loyalty to China within the civil service; squeezing businesses whose bosses support the democratic cause; and creeping censorship of the Internet and media under the auspices of national secury, they said.
Yam Kai-bong (任啟邦), a Tai Po district councilor with the localist pro-democracy “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.
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