Mass prosecutions send chills across Hong Kong political spectrum – the Diplomat



If you believe the Chinese government, Benny Tai is a mastermind and the main offender, guilty of plotting to subvert the power of the Chinese state. He had a rebellious history dating back to the 2013 Occupy Central protests. This time, Tai presented a highly subversive plan in a manifesto titled “Ten Steps to Mutual Destruction”. The manifesto called on pro-democracy advisers to the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) to blackmail the city government, threatening China’s unmistakable authority in Hong Kong. His first step in the execution of this diabolical plot was to orchestrate a pro-democracy primary elections in July 2020 with his accomplice, the militant group “Power for Democracy”. All the candidates participating in the primary elections were members of this subversive gang. All the polling centers and media groups that supported the primaries were witnesses to the crime, who could be arrested later. The 600,000 primary voters? They could be investigated as an accessory to the crime if there was any evidence of subversive actions.

This is the story behind the recent mass arrests of more than 50 pro-democracy figures, based on press conferences given by Hong Kong police and national security agencies and numerous articles published by pro-Beijing media . The narrative follows typical Chinese state logic, which focuses on a presumption of guilt, denies people’s free will, and tends to create the narrative of a “criminal organization” (usually backed by foreign powers), in the ultimate goal of explaining a simple truth: people are unhappy with an incompetent government.

A self-righteous story like this may suit China’s internal propaganda but is far from the truth if you take a close look at the events surrounding the primary elections.

The plot: from manifesto to primaries

Benny Tai’s manifesto, released in April 2020, refers to “mutual destruction,” a term popularized by protesters in 2019 that describes a strategy on the brink of forcing the governments of Hong Kong and Beijing to restore the autonomy and granting democracy to the city. Despite its radical title, the manifesto is a continuation of the moderate front, “within the system” of the movement which gained momentum in 2019. It proposes a strategy in stages, starting with winning the majority LegCo in the September 2020 elections (a majority would require at least 35 of the 70 seats in the legislature; thus, it was also known as the “35+” plan). The ultimate goal would be for a pro-democracy LegCo to block the budget twice to force Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to resign and pressure the government to implement the “five demands” of the protests. 2019, which included a plea for universal suffrage to elect. The leader and lawmakers of Hong Kong.

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Building on the experience of sharing votes in previous elections, jurist and former law professor Benny Tai and others held city-wide primary elections within the pro-democracy camp in July 2020 , with over 600,000 voters voting. To put this in context, the primaries were held against the backdrop of a new national security law in Hong Kong.

However, two weeks later, Beijing postponed the official elections until September 2021, citing the public health risks posed by the pandemic. In January 2021, the Hong Kong Department of National Security arrested organizers and primary candidates, charging them with conspiracy to commit acts of subversion.

The “subversive gang”

It might have suited Beijing’s goal of labeling everyone involved in Tai’s plan as a singular and powerful group of extremists. In reality, the candidates and lawmakers came from a wide cross section of the political spectrum, and they approved Tai’s plans to varying degrees.

The first group of these individuals is the more moderate, including middle-level politicians who sometimes publicly disapprove of Beijing’s agenda, including legislating on the National Security Law. Although they do not openly support the “35+ plan”, these politicians generally support the “five demands” – the same goal as the manifesto. In fact, each of the “five requests” had already found lawyers among pro-Beijing advisers before the National Security Law came into effect.

The second group is also moderate, but it requires a deeper dive into Hong Kong’s electoral machinery to understand its positions. The group is made up of candidates going through a mechanism called “functional constituencies,” which (ahead of the overhaul of the entire electoral system this year) would elect half of the seats in the LegCo to represent different specific social and economic sectors. The mechanism elects by restricted suffrage and traditionally favors pro-establishment candidates. Thus, it is seen as an unjust and broken system by many pan-democrats – running in functional constituencies is an unpopular political decision. As a result, the camp is not doing well and remains in the minority in LegCo, despite a two-decade history of winning 60% of popular votes in previous elections. This is where I was personally involved as a political science scholar: last year, along with others, I openly encouraged public participation in functional constituencies to truly represent the pro- trend. democratic electorate.

Since my open call, I have met many functional constituency candidates who have supported the 35+ campaign. Many were political outsiders, but they shared the same goal of defeating pro-establishment candidates in their sectors. Yet they are definitely a far cry from the description of “complicit in subversion”: many have called for changes within the existing system, but have not agreed to veto the government budget due to their larger electoral base. older and more conservative. Operating under a big pro-democracy banner has never been their preference; many gave priority to the sectoral demands of their constituents.

In other words, despite Beijing’s best efforts to label all offenders as radicals aimed at overthrowing the government, there had never been a well-defined club of ’35+’ loyalists, as individuals were not agree on future plans after the LegCo elections. So how is it that Beijing was able to accuse all the candidates as part of a unified conspiracy?

It is true that a third group, of candidates vying for the remaining LegCo seats in the “geographic constituencies”, participated in the primaries and supported the budget veto. Many signed a declaration promising to use the powers of LegCo to achieve the “five demands” but, keep in mind that none of them fully agreed with Tai’s 10-step proposal. Furthermore, how would a conditional veto – part of a legislator’s power – constitute subversion, especially when it depends on demands that many pro-establishment advisers favored?

Taking a step back, would vetoing the budget really shut down the government and “threaten national security,” as Beijing claims? According to Article 51 of the Basic Law, if the budget was rejected, the chief executive could still request advance funds, and even approve such funds if the Legislative Council were to be dissolved. In no case would the Hong Kong government have been paralyzed as we have seen in the United States during budget deadlocks. The very fact that the government had the means to disqualify anyone elected as it sees fit shows that Tai’s political manifesto was just a scapegoat and nothing more.

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Under common law assumptions or even basic logical reasoning, no candidate should have been arrested. But these mass prosecutions (and others like those of Martin Lee and Andy Li) show that the logic of the Chinese state, to take control of legislative and repressive powers, defies common sense in a civil society. . Prosecutors are pillars of our society, a fact that even pro-establishment figures would not deny. But who would dare to utter a word in protest? In an era reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, anyone could become the next target for prosecution as the red line moves to meet “national needs.”


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