Pro-Beijing clubs will help pick Hong Kong’s next leader



HONG KONG – The Sea Bear Swimming Club, in the northeastern suburb of Hong Kong, is a humble organization. It trains children in local competitions and offers free lessons to the elderly. His Facebook page, with just 151 followers, features photos of smiling college students in swimming caps and the occasional cat meme.

But in the coming weeks, the group will take on a new responsibility: helping choose the city’s next leaders.

The club is one of some 400 so-called grassroots associations recently approached by the government to play a key role in the city’s elections after Beijing overhauled the system in March to ensure that only “patriots” can rule the territory. . The groups were nominated to vote next month for the city’s electoral committee, a 1,500-member body that will then choose the city’s leader, known as the chief executive, and many lawmakers from a list approved by Beijing.

The government says it is giving more votes to ordinary Hong Kong residents. But the groups also share an important characteristic: clear support for Beijing and the Hong Kong government.

In addition to Sea Bear, other groups with this responsibility include The Family, a community organization that applauded on the police during the anti-government protests that rocked the city in 2019. There is the Bright and Elite Youth Association, a group of young professionals from Hong Kong and mainland China that organized a an event in the presence of an official from the Central Liaison Office, the upper arm of Beijing in Hong Kong.

A group that animates dance recitals, according to his Facebook page, hosted a show celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party with Hong Kong’s largest pro-Beijing political party – which also co-hosted swimming lessons with Sea Bear. The Kam Tin Table Tennis Association and the Chinese Arts Papercutting Association are also on board, according to a recently released voters list.

Several groups defended their right to participate in the electoral process.

“We may look like little potatoes, but when you put all these little organizations together, isn’t that the base? Sea Bear trainer Wan Ying-bo said when contacted by phone.

But for critics, the problem is not that these groups now have a say; the problem is who does not.

The election nearly eliminated the voice of pro-democracy blocs in the electoral commission, which had previously been hampered by Beijing’s far-reaching national security law. Opposition MPs were arrested. Churches, unions and arts groups have dissolved, fearing arrest. Pro-democracy politicians who would have served on the electoral committee as low-level elected officials called district councilors have resigned en masse in the face of various threats.

The redesign also significantly reduced the public vote. Previously, around 240,000 voters – already a mere fraction of the city’s 7.5 million inhabitants – could choose members of the electoral committee through a mixture of individual and group ballots. Now the number has been reduced to less than 8,000, as most of the individual votes have been eliminated.

The election results have consistently shown that more residents are in favor of the pro-democracy camp. But countering that was precisely the point, said Ivan Choy, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“It’s pretty clear that the Beijing authorities want to make sure they can predict and even monitor the outcome of the election,” he said. “They want these organizations that are loyal.”

The Chinese Communist Party has long relied on trade unions and community organizations to establish its base in Hong Kong. The central government helps fund the city’s pro-Beijing parties, which team up with business tycoons to sponsor welfare groups or even start new ones, scholars showed. Today, some of these groups are recruited for a more overtly political function.

Hong Kong’s electoral system has never been truly democratic, with only part of the legislature elected by popular vote. The chief executive has always been chosen by the electoral commission, which was already filled with pro-government figures before the overhaul. Calls for true universal suffrage have long been at the heart of protests.

Despite the constraints, the opposition has managed over the years to win many popularly elected seats, which has given it a modest but influential voice in the electoral commission. Today, Beijing’s electoral changes have removed that limited power, in part by reconfiguring the committee to tie it even more closely to the authorities.

In this reconfiguration, the addition of the base groups is relatively minor. They will be allowed to choose 60 of the 1,500 members of the electoral committee. On the other hand, nearly 200 members will be chosen by elite members of the Chinese legislature or another advisory body to Beijing.

Grassroots associations have received particular attention because of their claim to represent a more democratic impetus. Pro-democracy residents have taken turns ridiculing or blasting the groups. A headline in a local newspaper, citing experts, called the selection of certain groups “”comical.

When the New York Times messaged a WhatsApp number listed on the dance recital group’s Facebook page to request an interview, the person on the other end of the phone immediately replied “SORRY,” then blocked off. other messages.

A staff member of The Family, reached by phone, said the group does community service and has more than 700 members, but asked further questions of the group’s chairman, a man she only identified. by his last name, Lam. But Mr Lam said, “Too many media inquiries. I don’t want to talk to reporters.

Calls or emails to at least 20 other organizations went unanswered.

Dozens of groups on the list shared addresses, right down to the room number. The Sea Bear Swimming Club, for example, was listed at the same address as a Sea Bear Squash Club. When a reporter called a number listed online for the squash club, Mr. Wan, the swim coach, picked up the phone. He said the organizations were separate, but he didn’t explain.

At least four groups – including the Bright and Elite Youth Association, the group of young professionals – were housed in the same unit of a mixed-use building in the Wan Chai district, according to the government listing and building directory. . A man who opened the door to the unit when the Times reporters visited said no one was allowed to speak to the media. In the room behind him, dozens of alternating Hong Kong and Chinese flags hung on the walls.

There is nothing to indicate that groups do not actually exist or do the work they claim to do. In the hallway outside the groups office in Wan Chai, stacks of cardboard boxes were labeled indicating that they contained dozens of sachets of soup to distribute to families.

Yet the links between many of these grassroots groups and the establishment are obvious. In some cases, the groups are founded and led by politicians from pro-Beijing parties, and their activities align with central government goals.

Bright and Elite, for example, hosts cultural and educational exchanges with the continent. Another group on the popular list, Action of Voice, is led by Frankie Ngan Man-Yu, a leader of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Improvement and Progress of Hong Kong party. His group, he said, is visiting colleges in Hong Kong to conduct patriotic education.

“They are apples and oranges. A person can, of course, belong to more than one group, ”Ngan said when asked about his dual membership. “So there is no reason you should put all of these things together. “


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