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Hong Kong abandons further democratic reform as China tightens grip

Hong Kong Central Looking across Victoria Harbor from Kowloon. (Ron Reiring/Released)
January 13, 2019

The Hong Kong government on Wednesday ruled out any further attempt at democratic reform as the government moves ahead with plans to criminalize ‘insults’ to the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China.

Patrick Nip, the city’s top official in charge of constitutional affairs and liaison with the ruling Chinese Communist Party government in Beijing, said Hong Kong is “in no position” to restart democratic reforms, saying that doing so could be “rash” and lead to “extreme action.”

Nip, who was responding to a question from pro-democracy lawmaker James To about the likelihood of a democratically elected chief executive for the city in 2022, didn’t specify what he meant by “extreme action.”

He said an Aug. 31, 2014 decree by China’s parliament insisting that election candidates be screened by Beijing was a fundamental condition for any reform.

“If we are to restart constitutional reform, or further promote its development, this is a starting point,” Nip said of the National People’s Congress standing committee legal interpretation that sparked the 79-day 2014 Occupy Central civil disobedience movement for fully democratic elections.

“If we cannot even reach a consensus on this fundamental legal basis, I don’t see how we are in a position to further our reform proposal,” he said.

His comments came as Hong Kong fell to 73rd place in the Economic Intelligence Unit’s (EIU’s) annual global democracy index.

Last year’s banning of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) and the political screening of election candidates had weakened the city’s “already weak democracy,” the EIU said.

Draft law still vague

Meanwhile, Nip said the government is going ahead with laws that will ban any act of “altering or insulting” the national anthem, with criminal penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment.

Police will be given the freedom to bring charges against suspects for up to two years after the alleged offense, Nip said. The usual time limit is six months for minor offenses under Hong Kong law.

A draft copy of the bill previously indicated that anyone present in a public place when the “March of the Volunteers” is being played is required to “stand up and show respect.”

Civic Party lawmaker Jeremy Tam said the current draft is too vague about what exactly constitutes an “insult” to the national anthem.

“Let us not forget that this legislation is being proposed by the government,” Tam said. “They have a duty to explain the various situations in which such acts might take place, and which acts would and would not be in breach of this law.”

“And yet, at today’s press conference, they refused to give a straight answer to questions about different situations,” he said. “The government can’t seem to tell us, and yet they want to legislate.”

Use of the rousing revolutionary tune, which marks the struggle of the ruling Chinese Communist Party to found the People’s Republic, will also likely be banned in advertising, at private funerals, or as background music in public venues.

National anthem jeered at match

The move came after Hong Kong football fans jeered, turned their backs, and yelled Cantonese obscenities as the national anthem was played over the loudspeakers at the start of recent soccer matches in the city.

Meanwhile, the last British colonial governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, said the city had undergone a “general tightening of control” since President Xi Jinping took power in late 2012.

“There was a general tightening of control,” Patten told a parliamentary foreign affairs committee in Westminster on Tuesday.

“[Hong Kong’s autonomy] isn’t just about capitalism, it’s about the rule of law. It’s about free speech, it’s about all the freedoms we associate with pluralism, and I think that’s happened to a considerable extent over the past half a dozen years,” he said.