China’s chilling four word threat
It's just four little words, spoken by a senior official last week. But it's another sign that any defiance of Chinese leader Xi Jinping will not be tolerated.
Those words concern Hong Kong. The former British colony is supposed to operate under "one country, two systems" which allows it a high degree of autonomy from the Chinese mainland. It's an autonomy that the dictatorship has been busy dismantling for years.
On Monday, Xia Baolong, the director of the Beijing-run Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), gave a speech outlining electoral reforms in the region. Those reforms could come as soon as next month.
"Different political opinions," were allowed in Hong Kong, he said.
"But there is a red line: one should never do anything that harms the country's fundamental system; that is, to do something that harms the socialist system led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)."
Mr Xia summed it up with a quartet of words that will send a chill through local democracy campaigners.
China demands it should be only "patriots governing Hong Kong".
A Hong Kong watcher told news.com.au that while patriotism has always mattered to the nation's leaders, "what they really want is political obedience".
Elections to Hong Kong's parliament, called the Legislative Council or Legco, were due last September but were delayed ostensibly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, pro-democracy campaigners have long feared that the real reason was to give the government more time to move the electoral goalposts after massive demonstrations against mainland interference in Hong Kong's affairs.
To redesign the system to ensure few, if any, politicians not aligned with Beijing's thinking can nab a seat.
Last month, 50 pro-democracy campaigners were arrested simply for organising a vote to decide their election candidates.
RELATED: China explodes at 'racist' Australia
'PATRIOTS' DEFINITION CHANGED TO SUIT BEIJING
"Patriots governing Hong Kong," is not a new concept. It was first mentioned by then leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s before Hong Kong was returned to China.
The late Xiapoing had three standards to being a patriot - respecting China, supporting the handover and not harming Hong Kong's interests.
The phrase then largely vanished in the decades since but was resurrected by Mr Xi last month.
Last week, the HKMAO's Mr Xia fleshed out the new, and expanded, definition of a "patriot".
A patriot should strive to ensure Hong Kong's stability and prosperity; must safeguard China's sovereignty and "love" both China and the Communist Party, he stated.
In addition, "loopholes" should be closed off that allowed non-patriots into office. The logical conclusion would be to stuff Hong Kong's corridors of power with yes-men and women - even if the citizens of Hong Kong would prefer a few people saying no.
Mr Xia then valiantly attempted to square the concept of "one country, two systems" with unquestioning loyalty to Beijing, which looks more like "one country, one system".
Chinese Communist mouthpiece the Global Times quoted Mr Xia as saying that as the concept was "led by the Party" (although Britain might have something to say about that) "how could someone who upholds 'one country, two systems' be against the founder and leader of the system?"
Going against the deeply controversial national security law, imposed last year which made challenging Beijing an imprisonbale offence, could also be seen as "unpatriotic".
Hong Kong's ministers are fully in lock-step with the new definition of patriotism.
"This standard of requesting someone who loves their country to rule the country, I believe is universal," Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said.
"You cannot say that you love your country if you cannot even respect this system led by the CPC," said Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang this week.
Hong Kong broadsheet the South China Morning Post(SCMP) quoited Tam Yiu-chung, the territory's only delegate to China'srubber stamp parliament the National People's Congress (NPC), as pondering whether calls to "end one-party dictatorship" might even be enough to be labelled unpatriotic.
PERPETUAL RULE OF THE CCP
Brendan Clift, a teaching fellow at Melbourne University who has written on Hong Kong extensively, said there have been moves to "govern patriotically" since the mid-2010s. However the introduction of the national security law in 2020 was a "tipping point in the doing away with democracy.
"The latest definition of patriotism … is self-serving, hypocritical and misleading.
"The fundamental system of the country is the perpetual rule of the CCP - this is even written into the national constitution," he told news.com.au.
"That is why democracy is anathema to Beijing, and why it prefer that its citizens forget about politics and focus on making money."
To be clear, Hong Kong has never had full democracy. When Britain handed the colony back in 1997, only half of the Legco seat were elected by the region's citizens. However, Hong Kong's defacto constitution declared that the ultimate aim was for universal suffrage.
Under Communist rule that aim has not been met. Demanding Beijing's version of "patriotism" would arguably water down this already limited democracy by ensuring Hong Kongers could only elect candidates Beijing approves of.
Hong Kong's judiciary, which currently remains independent, could also be stuffed with patriots and become subservient to the Communist Party.
Oaths of loyalty would be extended across the public sector. Those who couldn't, because they favoured free elections for instance, would effectively have disqualified themselves from office.
Mr Xia was quoted as saying that oaths of patriotism were not unusual in governments worldwide.
It's true that newly minted Australian MPs swear allegiance to the Queen. But they remain free to campaign for a republic. And they certainly don't swear allegiance to one political party.
WHAT CHINA REALLY WANTS
Alan Leong, a pro-democracy campaigner and former Legco member, said Beijing was being "even more manipulative" and the definition of who was a patriot was "broad and vague".
"None of us can get hold of how those definitions would be institutionalised in the electoral system. But we won't pander to Beijing and change our core belief," Democratic Party chairman Lo Kin-hei was quoted as saying in the SCMP.
Mr Clift said it was precisely Beijing's "go slow" on the promised ramp up of democracy in Hong Kong that had led to the demonstrations that enraged China's leaders so much.
"Patriotism matters to China's leaders, but what they really want is political obedience," he said.
"Hong Kong activists are acting out of love for their home, and many have no problem with China per se - most have antecedents and relatives there.
"Beijing's response has not been to compromise but to seek greater control."
Events are moving quickly. An annual meeting of the NPC, which starts next week, may look to impose the new patriotism requirement on Hong Kong.
Beijing is also said to be looking at scrapping more than one hundred local council seats won by pro-democracy candidates in landslide elections held in 2019.
At the same election pro-Beijing councillors lost 242 seats.
It was a deep embarrassment to the dictatorship which was enraged.
If local and regional elections do go ahead, it's likely the barriers Beijing will impose will ensure Hong Kongers can vote for any shade of politician they so wish - so long as that shade is red.
Originally published as China's chilling four word threat