Beijing’s Suspension of Hong Kong’s Elections Only Prolongs the Inevitable—and Will Backfire

July 29, 2020 Updated: August 5, 2020

Commentary

Pro-Beijing media outlets broke the news late on July 28 of another bombshell ruling on Hong Kong that was handed down from China’s central authorities in Beijing.

Sing Tao and HK01—the latter of which was the first to report that the infamous Hong Kong National Security Law was formally on the agenda for June’s meeting of China’s rubber-stamp legislature—claim, citing official sources, that the Hong Kong government will request that the National People’s Congress (NPC) agree to an unprecedented postponement for an entire year of hotly anticipated elections to the Legislative Council (LegCo), scheduled for September.

While the recent rapid rise in coronavirus cases in Hong Kong is cited as the reason for the delay, weeks of pro-Beijing figures demanding the elections be called off betrays the fact that it’s a nakedly political decision. All the signs were pointing to a humiliating defeat of pro-government parties on a scale even larger than in the 2019 local elections, particularly after the recent stunning success of the pro-democracy camp’s primary.

What the authorities don’t realize is that if, as expected, Beijing proceeds with the postponement of the elections, it will likely prove to be a historic mistake.

The news comes as democracy supporters began to receive notice that they would, in fact, be able to appear on the ballot, after weeks of speculation that Beijing would seek to auto-disqualify all anti-government candidates. In practice, the delay is of such a length as to effectively mean the elections have been canceled.

In essence, the authorities are gambling that the intervening year will see heads in the pro-democracy camp drop and the movement run out of steam—as opposed to simply prolonging the inevitable in the form of a crushing defeat for pro-Beijing parties.

The ebbing of the protests in recent months, something that many had expected would escalate after the passing of the National Security Law, seems to have gone to Beijing’s head. The authorities seem unaware of how, in large part, that’s due to the consensus forming among democrats that the elections, held only once every four years, constituted their best chance to land more blows on the already bruised authorities than any immediate resumption of the protests.

Widespread fears of arrest under the new law are very real, but front-line protesters in particular, who spent the latter half of last year engaged in increasingly ferocious battles with the police, won’t be deterred in the long term by the passage of any law, no matter how draconian.

Thus, to view the current calm on the streets of Hong Kong as anything other than a temporary lull is a deception bordering on delusion, which the suspension of the elections will likely only expose in spectacular fashion with the inevitable return of the clashes of last year.

An extended period of calm as the pandemic continues to disrupt ordinary life in the city is likely, but will soon dissipate as and when a vaccine is found and distributed. The postponement of the elections, as with the passage of the National Security Law, will only serve to further enrage democrats and exacerbate the ferocious undercurrents and division among Hong Kong’s society, which is set to explode once more.

Once the formal announcement is made, all eyes are will be on the response from the free world. After the unveiling of the National Security Law, many nations, including the United States, placed a striking emphasis on the importance of the elections going ahead as planned when discussing a response. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo remarked at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit that how the elections would be conducted will “tell us everything we need to know about the Chinese Communist Party’s intentions with respect to freedom in Hong Kong.”

Now that the elections have been all but canceled, China hawks in the Trump administration, including Director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy Peter Navarro, will have real ammunition to push for immediate, punitive repercussions against Beijing.

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and analyst Gordon Chang have led calls for China to be immediately cut off from Swift, the U.S. dollar payment system widely used in international trade and investment deals, in a move that would be estimated to cost China more than $300 billion each year.

Other measures could also include targeted sanctions against individuals in Hong Kong and Beijing judged to be responsible for the postponement of the elections, and of human rights abuses in Hong Kong more widely, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. In any event, it’s unforeseeable in the current climate that the move would be met with resignation in Washington.

But while the suspension of the elections will only inflame tensions in Hong Kong’s viciously divided society, it should also be noted that the coming year before the poll will likely see a crackdown of unprecedented proportions.

Mass arrests under the National Security Law—with the most high-profile activists being extradited to the mainland to face trial—are likely, as well as the wholesale import into Hong Kong of other authoritarian measures used in the mainland to curb dissent.

But with no sign that the pro-democracy movement’s determination or its overwhelming support among the Hong Kong public is dying down, it seems Beijing has added another historic mistake in its catalog of the mishandling of a resistance movement on its periphery.

Jack Hazlewood is a student and activist based in London. He previously worked for a localist political party in Hong Kong, and served as a field producer for the conflict journalism outlet Popular Front’s documentary “Add Oil,” which followed front-line protesters in Hong Kong in the run-up to China’s National Day in 2019.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.