Hong Kong in 2022

Having secured a compliant Legislative Council (LegCo) via the rigged elections of December 19, 2021, China’s central government will likely take additional steps in 2022 to ensure its complete control over Hong Kong. New legislation will be passed to patch any remaining holes in the suppression of public opposition to the Chinese or Hong Kong governments. Administrative measures will be undertaken to further restrict the freedom of the press and freedom of thought. More charges will be brought against the participants in the 2019 protest movement, and more advocates for democracy will be sent to jail. Overall, authority over Hong Kong will continue to shift to the State Council of the People's Republic of China, with Hong Kong’s senior secretaries following the directives of officials in Beijing, rather than Hong Kong’s chief executive.

The LegCo Elections

The 2021 LegCo elections were held after a 14-month delay. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor postponed the elections at the end of July 2020, citing a recent spike in the number of Covid-19 cases in the city. The postponement was announced the day after Hong Kong’s election officials barred 12 pro-democracy candidates from running in the upcoming LegCo elections.

The delay also provided time for China’s leaders, with the help of Lam and her appointed senior officials, to restructure LegCo and its election process to guarantee that virtually all the seats would be won by “pro-establishment” candidates. China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) amended Hong Kong’s Basic Law to reduce the number of geographical constituency seats from 35 to 20, and the number of functional constituency seats from 35 to 30. The Standing Committee also added 40 new seats to be appointed by Hong Kong’s Election Committee, which was also restructured to reduce its pro-democracy members. As a result, the percentage of LegCo seats chosen by a popular vote decreased from 57 percent to 22 percent.

The Standing Committee’s revisions didn’t stop with the restructuring of LegCo; they also altered the eligibility criteria for prospective candidates. All candidates were to be evaluated by the newly created Candidate Eligibility Review Committee (CERC) to ensure that—in the words of the Standing Committee—the candidates are “patriots.” The CERC would consider if the candidate may have violated Hong Kong’s national security law, as well as if the candidate would faithfully uphold the Basic Law, in determining if the candidate would be allowed to run. In addition, each candidate had to secure the support of at least two members of each of the five sectors in the reformed Election Committee, creating another means to disqualify undesirable candidates. Not surprisingly, Hong Kong’s leading pro-democracy political parties boycotted the 2021 LegCo elections.

Faced with only the façade of a genuinely democratic election, the voters of Hong Kong protested in the only way available to them—by staying away from the polls. The official turnout rate—30.2 percent for the 20 geographical constituency seats—was the lowest in the history of LegCo elections, and barely half the rate in the 2016 LegCo elections. Historically low turnouts also occurred in several of the functional constituencies, particularly those with the largest number of potential voters and that had previously elected pro-democracy members. Overall, only 32.2 percent of the eligible voters in functional constituencies went to the polls; in 2016, 74.3 percent voted.

If the people of Hong Kong were trying to send a message to President Xi Jinping and Chief Executive Lam, neither of them were apparently listening. China’s State Council released a white paper on “democratic progress in Hong Kong,” which described the 2021 LegCo elections as “open, fair, secure and clean.” The paper also characterized the LegCo elections as part of China’s effort to “establish a model of democracy with Chinese characteristics.” Hong Kong’s chief secretary for administration John Lee Ka-chiu stated he was “pleased that the first LegCo General Election held after the electoral system was improved was conducted smoothly in a fair, open, just and orderly manner.”

‘Heavy Legislative Agenda’

Hong Kong’s “patriots-only” LegCo held its first session on January 12, 2022. Lam stated that LegCo would have a “heavy legislative agenda,” indicating that her government was working on nearly 40 legislative proposals to submit to LegCo.

One of those proposals pertains to Article 23 of the Basic Law, which requires Hong Kong to:

enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organisations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies.

In June 2020, the NPC passed a “national security law” for Hong Kong that criminalized acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with a foreign country or “external elements.” However, the law also reiterated the Article 23 requirement that Hong Kong pass a local anti-sedition law.

Lam’s legislative agenda also contains other proposals that could curtail freedom of the press and free speech in order to “safeguard national security.” Additional legislative proposals will likely involve establishing educational programs to provide “a correct understanding of the history and culture” of China.

Previous attempts to introduce Article 23 legislation in 2003 and 2019 led to popular protest movements in Hong Kong that blocked their adoption by LegCo. Similarly, a proposal to create a “moral and civic education” program in 2012 led to widespread demonstrations and a withdrawal of the proposal. It is uncertain how the people of Hong Kong will respond to Lam’s legislative agenda for 2022, given the Hong Kong Police Force’s ban on anti-government demonstrations.

More Criminal Charges

The lack of a local anti-sedition law has not stopped Lam’s government from arresting and prosecuting organizers of the 2019 pro-democracy protests, as well as many of the leading pro-democracy politicians, under the provisions of the NPC’s national security law for Hong Kong and local sedition laws dating back to 1922 and 1938. Needless to say, these arrests also render many ineligible to run for public office in Hong Kong.

According to Secretary Lee, more than 10,000 arrests have been made for alleged crimes related to the 2019 pro-democracy protests, including over 150 for violations of the national security law. In addition, nearly 30 people have been charged with terrorism. As of May 2021, more than 600 people had been convicted of protest-related crimes, some receiving sentences of up to six years in prison.

The political persecution has not been limited to protest organizers and pro-democracy LegCo members. People who hosted websites used to communicate protest plans have been arrested and detained without bail. In addition, journalists who report about these arrests and statements made by the accused have been threatened with arrest for spreading “anti-government” information.

The threats against journalists and pro-democracy news agencies have already had an impact on press freedom in Hong Kong. In June 2021, Lam’s government shut down pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily by bringing charges of violations of the national security law and freezing the newspaper’s financial assets. Since then, two other pro-democracy news agencies, Citizens News and Stand News, have ceased operations in the face of prosecution by Lam’s government.

Those who have completed their prison sentences may not be free for very long. Hong Kong’s Justice Department has demonstrated a pattern of filing charges for each event or incident that allegedly involved criminal actions. The year 2022 will likely see many of the people who finish their sentences be arrested, detained, and tried for other alleged crimes related to the protests.

Secretaries Reporting to Chinese Officials

Another important development in 2021 that will likely continue in 2022 is the shift in power in Hong Kong away from the chief executive to China’s State Council. Secretary Lee, Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng, Yeuk-wah and Police Commissioner Raymond Siu Chak-yee allegedly are taking their orders from officials in Beijing. Similarly, Lam has been reduced to an implementer of orders from the State Council, rather than the leader of the semi-autonomous Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and a representative of the people of Hong Kong.

March Chief Executive Election

The marked decline in the role of Hong Kong’s chief executive has not diminished interest in people seeking the position. Lam reportedly is interested in being reappointed by Hong Kong’s Election Committee, but it is unclear if the State Council will support her selection. Film producer Checkley Sin Kwok Lam has announced he intends to run in the March 27 election. Other rumored potential candidates include Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po, former chief of the World Health Organization Margaret Chan, and former secretary for security and LegCo member Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee. None of the three have publicly confirmed their candidacy. Regardless of how many official candidates there are, in the end, the decision will be made by China’s State Council, and the members of the Election Committee will dutifully vote accordingly.

Options for U.S. Policy

Unfortunately, there is little the U.S. government can do in the short run to influence China’s treatment of Hong Kong without causing undesirable harm to the people of Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 and the Presidential Executive Order 13936 have not slowed or stopped China’s gradual takeover of the governance of Hong Kong or the gradual erosion of human rights in the city. Similarly, limited sanctions placed on selected Chinese and Hong Kong officials have had little effect, as these individuals are not bothered by U.S. visa bans or U.S. financial restrictions.

For 2022, Congress and the Biden administration should focus on providing help to the people of Hong Kong by offering opportunities to escape China’s oppression. The Hong Kong People’s Freedom and Choice Act of 2021 would provide temporary protection to Hong Kong residents currently in the United States, plus special immigration treatment for Hong Kong residents seeking refugee status. The Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act would offer similar preferential immigration treatment for Hong Kong residents. The America Creating Opportunities for Manufacturing, Pre-Eminence in Technology, and Economic Strength Act of 2022 also contains Hong Kong–related provisions, including preferential immigration treatment for Hong Kong residents, funding for democracy promotion in Hong Kong, and a ban on the export of munitions to the Hong Kong Police Force.

Sadly, none of these bills will help the more than 7 million Hong Kong residents who have little chance of emigrating to the United States or any other country. Their suffering will likely continue until there is a change in attitude—or leadership—in China’s central government.

Michael F. Martin is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Michael Martin
Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program