How Hong Kong became a police state

September 19, 2021

The first round of a so-called “election” process under a new National Security Law has just taken place in Hong Kong. Out of a population of 7,5 million inhabitants, just 4,800 were qualified to be voters. The process has, in fact, more of the character of an appointment process than of an election. All the candidates have been carefully vetted. They were ultimately cleared as the result of a police investigation. It is evident then that the final controlling authority in Hong Kong is today the national security police. The most powerful figure in the city is a former policeman, John Lee, who now serves as the security minister. Carrie Lam, the official chief executive of Hong Kong, has been demoted to being the spokesperson for the new regime.


This transformation of Hong Kong is surprising since it has been brought about by the authorities in Beijing — and mainland China is not a police state. It is, rather, a Party state in which the Communist Party determines who represents the people and who rules. Beijing obviously decided not to remold Hong Kong at this moment in the image of the mainland. The goal was, rather, to preserve the “one country, two system” principle enshrined in the Basic Law, but in a profoundly altered fashion. Some kind of rudimentary election process was to be maintained. One might call it a veneer. But that still leaves the question who was likely to be deceived by it. Certainly not the democratic states around the world with their wide-open election systems. And it is difficult to imagine that the citizens of Hong Kong would be impressed by this “improvement” (as Carrie Lam has called it) of the democratic process. Being stripped of a right you have previously had is unlikely to be seen by anyone as an improvement.


The police state system in Hong Kong is, rather, the outcome of a twofold thought in the minds of the Beijing rulers. The first part of it is that some kind of electoral process may, indeed, serve a positive purpose. (But which one?) And that means that the Communist Party cannot officially be given a hegemonic status in the city. The second part of the thought is that Beijing must keep tight control over what happens in Hong Kong. The electoral process must thus be subjected to the most stringent controls. This requires the creation of a new controlling body, the national security police, which will, of course, have to be acting strictly on behalf of the Beijing authorities. The Hong Kong police state must be under the control of the Beijing party state. The result is the Byzantine mechanism now in place meant to make sure that that the “patriots” selected will serve the purposes of the central government.


It is difficult to imagine that this system will continue for long since it is so counter-intuitive. As Hong Kong is integrated more and more into China, as Beijing clearly intends to do, some kind of decision will have to be made. One possibility is the complete abandonment of Hong Kong’s Basic Law and the expansion of the party state into the city. The other is a reform of the political system of the mainland to include an electoral element under tight control – that is, the extension of the police state to all of China.

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