A top ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official in charge of Hong Kong has warned that only "patriots" will be allowed to hold public office in future, suggesting that the authorities are ruling out even a limited form of political opposition.
"Hong Kong after the return to the motherland will be governed by patriots, and [government] power must only be wielded by patriots," Xia Baolong, vice chairman of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO), said in a Feb. 22 speech reported on the office's website.
Xia said having pro-China figures in charge was "an inevitable requirement" of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule.
"Hong Kong's governing power can only be wielded by Chinese who love the motherland and Hong Kong: only then can China resume its sovereignty over Hong Kong," he said.
"There is no room for ambiguity," Xia said, hitting out at lawmakers' use of their oaths of allegiance to make political points; actions which saw six pro-democracy members stripped of their seats in the Legislative Council (LegCo) in recent years.
"If you allow anti-China forces to take over the governance of Hong Kong step by step and to do whatever they want, they do things that endanger national security and disrupt Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability," Xia warned.
"To be a patriot is to love the People's Republic of China."
China imposed a draconian national security law on Hong Kong on July 1, 2020, in a move that outlaws public criticism of the authorities and any overseas fundraising or political contacts, as well as slogans linked to the 2019 pro-democracy movement.
Political analysts said Xia's speech -- which came after similar comments from CCP general secretary Xi Jinping at the end of January -- likely signaled an end to participation in elections by pro-democracy candidates.
'They will always find excuses'
Central and Western district councilor Fergus Leung -- who was arrested at the end of last year for taking part in democratic primaries the government said were illegal -- said previous disqualifications of pro-democracy candidates and lawmakers alike had shown which direction the city's political life is headed in.
"They will just keep on adding criteria [for participation], so they will always be able to find excuses to prevent Hongkongers who support freedom and democracy from participating in politics," he said.
"I think the chances of pro-democracy candidates or political parties being allowed to run in elections are looking very slim indeed now," said Fung, whose candidacy for the now-postponed 2020 LegCo elections was rejected by the authorities because of his political views.
"All of this from Xia Baolong today is just a way to come up with a plausible reason to completely exclude democrats from future elections," Leung said.
Political commentator Johnny Lau agreed, saying he fully expects changes to the electoral system to favor pro-China candidates.
"Back in the day, they brought in proportional representation to help the weaker, pro-Beijing candidates gain a certain number of seats," Lau said. "Now, that system is working in favor of democratic candidates ... so they will need to get rid of it."
"This is definitely about being able to control the outcome of elections," Lau said.
Chief executive Carrie Lam said the policy of only allowing "patriots" to hold political office was about "preventing those who want to collude with foreign forces to push Hong Kong into the abyss."
A 'clear message' from Beijing
Lam said Hong Kong has political parties that do not support government policies but are still patriotic.
She said examples of non-patriots would include "a person who feels that Hong Kong could be independent, a person who prefers to collude with another overseas authority to subvert the power of the Central Government and the Hong Kong [government]."
Officials on the democratic island of Taiwan hit out at Xia's comments, and called on the CCP to make good on its promise of a "high degree of autonomy" for Hong Kong.
"The message being sent from Beijing is very clear," the island's Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) said.
"But if the CCP claims to implement [the promises of autonomy], it should protect and respect the right of the Hong Kong people to freedom and democracy," a spokesperson said.
Since Xi called for "patriotism" in Hong Kong politics, the city's government has confirmed that members of the District Council, which saw a landslide victory for pro-democracy parties in November 2019, will be required to swear oaths of allegiance.
Claims that oaths of allegiance weren't honored have been used to strip several elected LegCo members of their seats, eventually prompting the mass resignation of the entire opposition camp in December 2020 in protest.
District councilors have told RFA that the administration has been doing everything in its power to undermine the councils since the last election, to the extent of denying funding and setting up 'shadow' councils staffed with Beijing's supporters.
Reported by Lu Xi and Man Hoi Yan for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.