Noose tightens on Hong Kong as China Congress set to open

China’s rubber-stamp legislature meets this week in the Communist Party’s biggest political set-piece of the year, with speculation Beijing will use the event to further tighten the noose on Hong Kong.

Souvenirs featuring Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) and late communist leader Mao Zedong (R) are seen at a store in Beijing on March 2, 2021, ahead of the upcoming annual meeting of the National People’s Congress. Greg Baker / AFP

Authorities are working to snuff out dissent in the financial hub after huge crowds hit the streets in 2019 in often violent pro-democracy demonstrations.

During last year’s gathering of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing, China introduced a sweeping Hong Kong security law designed to stifle opposition to its control of the city.

Recent comments by officials have fuelled speculation that Beijing will double down during the session, which opens Friday, with changes to Hong Kong’s limited electoral system that could further neuter opposition.

“Systems must be improved to ensure that the bodies of power in Hong Kong are run by genuine patriots,” said Xia Baolong, the head of a mainland agency overseeing affairs in the territory, according to a report from state news agency Xinhua.

State media has also reported that “electoral loopholes” will be plugged to make sure that only those loyal to Beijing govern Hong Kong.

Congress legislation to that effect is likely to bring the mainland another step closer to “complete control over who rules Hong Kong, from top to bottom,” said Diana Fu, a University of Toronto political scientist.

“Beijing’s rhetoric about having ‘patriots’ run Hong Kong is a not-so-subtle signal to the pro-democracy camp that they should prepare to clear out or be cleared out,” she said.

Hong Kong’s limited electoral system appeared in the cross-hairs of the Communist Party when pro-democracy candidates won local council elections in a landslide, a major rebuke to China.

The session will open less than a week after dozens of activists were arrested for subversion after organising a primary election that was intended to offer united opposition to establishment parties.

The roundup has left the pro-democracy camp in tatters.

‘Extraordinary stress’

The Congress’s roughly 3,000 members will fill Beijing’s cavernous Great Hall of the People for a week of meetings choreographed to tout the achievements and power of the Communist Party.

It is also an important occasion for the party to lay out priorities, economic expectations, and foreign policy for the coming year.

Besides the battle over Hong Kong, this year’s Congress meets under the “extraordinary stress” of the pandemic and tense US relations, said Yuen Yuen Ang, professor at the University of Michigan.

“It will be an opportunity for the (Communist Party) to signal strength and its plans for the future.”

The centrepiece is the annual report by Premier Li Keqiang — China’s equivalent of a “state of the nation” address — expected on Friday and in which an economic growth target for the year is traditionally announced.

For the first time in memory, Li last year gave no annual target for the world’s second-largest economy, citing the “great uncertainty” of the pandemic.

But China’s economy has rebounded since then, and some key industrial provinces have already begun announcing solid six-percent local growth targets.

Last year’s session — delayed for the first time in four decades as the country battled Covid-19 — was used by President Xi Jinping to declare victory against the virus.

The pandemic that first emerged in China is now largely under control within its borders, though questions linger about Chinese missteps which allowed it to spread globally in the first place.

Tight restrictions remain, especially in Beijing, which is requiring all arrivals to undergo repeated virus testing.

Legislation submitted to the Congress is nearly always approved overwhelmingly by the Communist Party-controlled chamber.

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