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Görlach Global: End of pretence at democracy in Hong Kong

As somebody who has chronicled and commented on the dramatic developments in Hong Kong over recent years, it is a sad duty to have to report this: Beijing has installed a new leader in the formerly semi-autonomous financial metropolis. The individual in question is loyal to Beijing, abundantly keen to show his unquestioning loyalty to the ruling Chinese Communist Party by crushing the city's pro-democracy movement.

John Lee is replacing the hapless and cold Carrie Lam, who has — according to Beijing — fouled things up twice. Under her administration, pro-democracy demonstrations grew to 2 million strong. Also under her administration, the COVID-19 pandemic worsened so much in the new year, that by the beginning of May, around 9,000 local lives had been claimed by the virus. Up until then, the number of COVID-19 deaths had been very low in Hong Kong.

The two are connected. The health crisis arrived just in time for Lam. Without COVID-19, it would have been impossible to keep the crowds from protesting on the streets. In the November 2017 regional elections, Beijing's chosen candidates lost in 17 of Hong Kong's 19 districts. There couldn't have been a more hurtful slap in Chinese President Xi Jinping's face.

For the people of Hong Kong it was already clear that the Chinese president wouldn't just shrug off this humbling blow. The pandemic was Xi Jinping's lucky break.

Elections for the Hong Kong Legislative Council were postponed, moved from September 2020 to the winter of 2021. In April 2020, pro-democracy activists were arrested in high profile raids. Then in July 2020, the Hong Kong "security law" was introduced by Chinese authorities. This was the law against which so many locals had protested in such large numbers. Its introduction was a triumph for Beijing.

At Beijing's mercy

The Chinese leadership in Beijing had been trying to end Hong Kong's autonomy with just such a law since 2003. After this coup, managed by Lam, anybody in Hong Kong, whether they are local or a foreigner, could be arrested in Hong Kong and extradited to China for trial.

Thanks to this new law, Hong Kong is at the mercy of Beijing's games. The rules are wide ranging and worded in a deliberately vague way so that they may serve as a deterrent, leading to preemptive obedience.

Hong Kong's new leader, John Lee, was always a huge fan of this so-called security law, almost as big a fan as he was of the use of water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas in the "fight" against pro-democracy demonstrators.

Lam was forced to stand down for Lee. There were no other candidates to oppose him and Lee was elected with 99% of votes from an election committee loyal to Beijing.

Now there isn't even any pretense at democracy in Hong Kong, the way there was before the end of the pro-democracy movement, an end that Lee brought about. Beijing had wanted to at least retain elections it had promised the city when it was handed over from the British to the Chinese, even if only as a matter of form. But from the start only candidates loyal to Beijing were allowed to win an election.

And of course, locals in Hong Kong rebelled against such a farce.

So what can a long-time chronicler of Hong Kong say about the election of Lee? He is the city's new chief executive, as cunning as Pontius Pilate of the Bible.

Pilate, a careerist of the Roman Empire, is known to Christians as Caesar's representative in Roman-occupied Palestine, who condemned Jesus of Nazareth to death. He did this in order to stifle a native Jewish uprising there. Just like Lee, Pilate could look back upon a series of alleged successes before Rome entrusted him with his important job.

Shaping the narrative

Because of this, there can be no doubt that — unlike Lam — Lee will know how to fulfill his Beijing masters' wishes. Hong Kong's democracy has been razed. Believing in democracy there now is just as dangerous as being a Christian during the first centuries of the Roman Empire.

History is written by the winners. Beijing controls Hong Kong now which gives it the opportunity to shape the narrative, explaining that those who advocate for democracy are traitors to their nation's cause.

Until the situation in Hong Kong changes, the countries of the free world must welcome those who have to flee the terror that its new leader, John Lee, will doubtless inflict upon the city.

Alexander Görlach is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a Research Associate at the Internet Institute of Oxford University. Having spent time in Taiwan and Hong Kong, this region became his core topic, in particular the rise of China and what this signifies for the free world. He has held various positions at Harvard University and the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally written in German.