Hong Kong charged 47 pro-democracy politicians on Sunday with subverting the government - by attempting to join it.
It is hard to fathom what kind of Catch-22 world you are living in, where getting elected to the government is considered an effort to overthrow the government. But that's exactly the case being presented by the Beijing-backed authorities, who have charged the 47 under the draconian treason-and-subversion National Security Law forced on Hong Kong last year.
The "crime" of the 47 would-be candidates was to organize an informal primary last July, to select the most-popular candidates to stand for election to Hong Kong's Congress, the Legislative Council. That's being portrayed as some kind of effort to overthrow the government by actually getting into the government itself.
The Beijing puppet government was terrified of these elections, which have now been postponed by a year because of the "pandemic." That's because at the very local level, pro-democracy candidates overwhelmingly swept another set of elections, for district council, in November 2019.
For those district elections, there was an unprecedented turnout of 71.1%, with 2.9 million out of a potential 4.1 million voters turning out. Pro-democracy candidates took control of 17 out of 18 district councils, bodies that normally govern over bus-stop location and trash collection. They instead became a proxy vote against the pro-Beijing government and in support of the 2019 democracy protests.
The establishment was shocked by those results. Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the city's leader, had long maintained that a silent majority of Hong Kongers were sick and tired of the protests and the disruption they caused, and supported her administration. She believed her own propaganda. The ballot box proved just how wrong that was. The Hong Kong "government will humbly listen to the public and reflect thoroughly," she said in a statement.
They listened, and decided never to allow such embarrassing elections to happen again. After Sunday's legal action, all prominent democracy politicians and activists are either already in prison, or charged with crimes that could send them there for life.
On Monday, in scenes reminiscent of the 2019 demonstrations, around 1,000 supporters of the politicians gathered outside the courthouse where they were charged. Wearing black, they chanted slogans such as "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times" and "Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong," rally cries that Hong Kong authorities say likely violate the sedition law. Such activities have become rare since the National Security Law made those previously protected free-speech and political statements punishable with prison sentences.
For investors, there's no immediate short-term impact. The Hang Seng benchmark index rose 1.6% on Monday amid a broad rally in Asia. It's up 8.2% so far in 2021.
But it's hard to see how Hong Kong's place as the financial capital of East Asia will hold. There's now little difference between being based in "free" Hong Kong and the more restricted mainland cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, which are closer to the world's biggest consumer market. There are plenty of expatriate employees who think "What's the big deal?" and accept a lack of political freedom as the price for doing business in China. But for Hong Kongers - a place I've lived for 20 years, where I'm married to a local - this oppression and removal of civil rights spells the end of the city as we know it.
Banks have been transferring executives either into mainland China or out of Hong Kong to more liberal jurisdictions such as Singapore and Tokyo. The New York Times moved most of its Asia hub in Hong Kong to Seoul, the South Korean capital. Political reporting or analyst assessments of Beijing's performance or virus response could easily run afoul of the National Security Law.
Police swept through the city at dawn last month to arrest 55 people, including the 47 now charged with one count of subverting the National Security Law. Although the authorities said the law would be used very selectively against terrorists and traitors, it has now been applied selectively to charge essentially every prominent democracy activist or politician who stands up to Beijing. The media mogul Jimmy Lai, who runs the city's most-popular tabloid, Apple Daily, has also been charged - but in a sign of how Beijing uses any available law against its opponents, is also being prosecuted for an obscure violation of the newspaper's lease that precludes subletting space.
Last week, the Beijing official in charge of its Hong Kong office announced plans designed to ensure that only "patriots" sit in positions of power in Hong Kong. Anyone who violates the subversion law would be disqualified from running for office, and civil servants would have to pledge allegiance to Communist China as well as to Hong Kong.
Beijing in November already removed four elected members of Congress in Hong Kong from their posts. That caused the remaining pro-democracy elected officials to walk out, and resign. So there is no current opposition voice in the government.
Beijing wants it to stay that way. The mainland official, Xia Baolong, said changes were necessary to "perfect" Hong Kong's political system, to ensure loyalists to China can "firmly hold" power. There is no clear legal standard as to what constitutes a "patriot," and Beijing is unlikely to set one, meaning it can use the yardstick however it sees fit.
The pro-democracy camp had already been playing a game rigged in Beijing's favor - and winning. Now it's clear that Beijing is taking its ball away, and refusing to play that game anymore, if it's going to lose.
The 2019 demonstrations have failed in bringing democracy to Hong Kong, at least for now. But they have succeeded in revealing Beijing's iron fist and determination to govern Hong Kong directly, with no dissent. Where the central government's minions had been working subtly or covertly behind the scenes, they have now revealed their hand.
"In our country where socialist democracy is practiced, political dissent is allowed, but there is a red line here," Xia, China's director of Hong Kong and Macau affairs, said last Monday. "It must not be allowed to damage the fundamental system of the country - that is, damage the leadership of the Communist Party of China."
Hong Kong is "democratic" in much the same way that the German Democratic Republic governed East Germany. Or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea governs North Korea.
Beijing is reportedly looking at ways to crack down on those pesky district councils. A group of 1,200 generally pro-Beijing electors pick the city's leader, rather than that person being elected by the public, but there are plans to tighten that stranglehold further. District councilors nominate a handful of those electors, and it's clear pro-democracy sentiment is strong enough in the city that Beijing fears it may lose control even of that hand-picked selection committee.
The European Union and United Kingdom were swift in their condemnation of this weekend's charges. It is not clear why eight of the 55 people arrested were not charged, but they include John Clancey, an American lawyer who was treasurer of the group that organized the primary, and who became the first foreign national arrested under the law.
The National Security Law is worded to apply to all citizens, anywhere in the world, who act in a way considered against the interest of the pro-Beijing government, including any effort to request that foreign politicians sanction Hong Kong. Several Hong Kong activists have met with U.S. politicians such as senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley to indicate sanctions were necessary to demonstrate official displeasure over the curtailment of civil rights in Hong Kong.
"The decision to charge 47 Hong Kong politicians and activists for conspiracy to commit subversion under the National Security Law is another deeply disturbing step," British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said.
In the Sino-British Joint Declaration agreement for the 1997 handover when Hong Kong was transferred from Britain to China, Beijing promised to allow Hong Kong's freewheeling economic, social and political system to continue. But it has become increasingly authoritarian and determined to undermine those liberties when the clash with Communist ideals. The National Security Law, forced on Hong Kong directly by Beijing, was not written with the input of any Hong Kongers at all.
"The National Security Law violates the Joint Declaration, and its use in this way contradicts the promises made by the Chinese government, and can only further undermine confidence that it will keep its word on such sensitive issues," Raab said.
The European Union Office to Hong Kong and Macau expressed "great concern" at the charges in a Facebook statement, and called for the immediate release of those arrested. "The nature of these charges makes clear that legitimate political pluralism will no longer be tolerated in Hong Kong," it said, urging Hong Kong and Beijing authorities to "abide by their commitments to fundamental freedoms and the rule of law."