Hong Kong (CNN)Hong Kong's decision to bar 12 pro-democracy candidates from standing in now postponed elections has raised serious concerns over whether genuine political opposition will be tolerated in the city following the imposition of a new security law by Beijing.
Hong Kong is setting up a postponed election without a real opposition
A special administrative region (SAR) of China, Hong Kong has a partially-autonomous political and legal system, including a limited form of democracy evolved from its days under British colonial rule.
Those limits and the inability of the government to continue a transition to full democracy have long been criticized by the city's opposition, and sparked mass protest movements.
And certainly, there is a lot to take issue with.
The city's leader is selected by a tiny committee drawn mostly from Hong Kong's elite. Half of the legislature is made up of functional constituencies, representing not voters but business and special interest groups. And the city's government is staffed not by elected officials, but career bureaucrats.
On Thursday, the limits of democracy within this system seemed to contract further, as the government barred a dozen candidates from standing in legislative elections, and warned that more disqualifications were coming.
The election -- which had been scheduled for September 6, but on Friday was postponed for 12 months due to the government citing coronavirus concerns -- will be the first since a new national security law came into effect, criminalizing secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference.
That law has already had a major chilling effect, and may have stopped the city's protest movement in its tracks. The government now appears to be coming after its critics within the legislature.
Those affected by the ban include activist Joshua Wong, a leader of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, and other former student protesters, but also mainstream candidates from pro-democracy parties and multiple moderate incumbent lawmakers, including Dennis Kwok and Alvin Yeung.
While candidates have been barred from standing in the past, and some even removed from office once elected, the large number of those barred this week, and the broad justifications given for doing so, raise questions over whether it is possible to have meaningful opposition in Hong Kong.
While the decisions to bar 12 legislators were made by returning officers in their various constituencies -- low level bureaucrats -- both the Hong Kong and Chinese governments quickly put out statements in support of the move.
Under Hong Kong's Basic Law, the city's de facto constitution, prospective legislators must swear to "uphold" the constitution, a declaration that has been largely procedural in the past.
But citing a court case in 2016 barring a pro-independence candidate, the government said in a statement that vowing to "uphold" Basic Law "denotes not just compliance with it, but also an intention to support, promote, and embrace it."
The government also gave examples of behavior that would result in disqualification, including advocating for Hong Kong independence or self-determination, or "soliciting intervention by foreign governments or political authorities."
While such behavior is tolerated in many democracies -- both the British and Canadian parliaments include openly secessionist parties for example -- all are newly illegal in Hong Kong, under the security law.
Other examples, however, are much more in line with what it means to be an opposition politician, including "expressing an intention" to "indiscriminately (vote) down any legislative proposals, appointments, funding applications and budgets introduced by (the government) so as to force the government to accede to certain political demands."
This appears to be in response to a plan from some in the pro-democracy camp, if they won a majority in the legislature, to vote down leader Carrie Lam's budget, forcing a constitutional crisis and potentially her resignation.
Candidates are also to be barred if they express "an objection in principle" to the enactment of the security law. And while the government promised the law would not be retroactive, several returning officers cited candidates' opposition to the law prior to its enactment as a reason for barring them, something that could result in many more disqualifications given that practically the entire pro-democracy movement was united in opposing the law.
In its statement supporting the disqualification of candidates this week, and hinting at more to come, the government said there was "no question of any political censorship, restriction of the freedom of speech or deprivation of the right to stand for elections as alleged by some members of the community."
"The (Hong Kong) government respects and safeguards the lawful rights of Hong Kong people, including the right to vote and the right to stand for elections. It also has a duty to implement and uphold the Basic Law and ensure that all elections will be conducted in accordance with the Basic Law and relevant electoral laws," it added.
However, the claim was immediately called into question by many, both in and outside the city, including British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab who, in a statement, said it was clear the candidates "were disqualified because of their political views."
"The move undermines the integrity of 'One Country, Two Systems' and the rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Joint Declaration and Hong Kong's Basic Law," added Raab, referring to the system that under international law guaranteed the city's autonomy until 2047.
The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, which represents lawmakers in multiple countries including the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, said the disqualifications were a "further curtailing of Hong Kong's way of life and will exacerbate existing grievances in the city at a time of increased tension."
Human rights groups, current lawmakers, political parties and other foreign governments have also criticized the move, with Amnesty International saying it demonstrated an "intention to punish peaceful criticism and advocacy of opposing views."
While the election itself is currently postponed due to the coronavirus, if it does go ahead, it seems likely it will not include many of the most popular or prominent pro-democracy figures in the city, and maybe few serious opposition candidates at all.
There are echoes in this of the proposal put forward by Beijing in 2014 for how Hong Kong could choose its leader. Unlike the current system, where a tiny committee selects the chief executive, the Chinese government said that all Hong Kongers would get a vote -- but Beijing would control who stands.