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Hong Kong’s Democratic Rollback Continues

Two years after massive pro-democracy protests, a political overhaul further erodes electoral representation in the city’s government.

By , a senior editor at Foreign Policy.
Democratic Party chairperson Lo Kin-hei speaks to the media.
Democratic Party chairperson Lo Kin-hei speaks to the media.
Democratic Party chairperson Lo Kin-hei speaks to the media regarding local legislation on his city’s election overhaul outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on May 27. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Hong Kong’s legislature approves an electoral overhaul, Russia stops some European flights from landing on its territory, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosts Hungarian leader Viktor Orban in London.

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Hong Kong Gets a Political Overhaul

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Hong Kong’s legislature approves an electoral overhaul, Russia stops some European flights from landing on its territory, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosts Hungarian leader Viktor Orban in London.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Hong Kong Gets a Political Overhaul

Nearly two years after hundreds of thousands of people marched in pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the city has transformed—and not in line with their vision. This week, citizens lost another measure of autonomy to pro-Beijing forces, a step that could drive even more young people away.

On Thursday, Hong Kong’s legislature approved changes to the political system that will reduce electoral representation in government, dealing yet another blow to the city’s democracy. The overhaul increases the total number of legislative seats from 70 to 90, but it cuts the number of directly elected lawmakers down to just 20. A new election committee will fill 40 seats and take responsibility for selecting the city’s chief executive next March. (Current leader Carrie Lam, who backed the changes, hasn’t said whether she will seek reelection.)

The move comes just ahead of the anniversary of China’s draconian national security law entering into force in Hong Kong. The legislation, drafted by the government in Beijing, cracks down on dissent and what it deems foreign interference, intending to extinguish the pro-democracy movement that reached a peak in June 2019 with mass protests. More than 2,500 people face prosecution for participating in those demonstrations, with many more potential cases waiting in the authorities’ backlog.

The latest changes will grant China even more power over the city’s governance. The new election committee is tasked with vetting candidates and eliminating those deemed unpatriotic—that is, not pro-Beijing—from contention. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken swiftly condemned the measures, saying they “will not foster long-term political and social stability for Hong Kong.” He also called on authorities to drop charges against people detained under the national security law.

Political prisoners. The electoral changes, along with the national security law and ensuing crackdown, leave the pro-democracy movement with limited space to operate. Nearly 300 activists have been sentenced to prison, and others are awaiting trial, including many young leaders. Meanwhile, public protest has become even more difficult during the pandemic. Hong Kong has banned a candlelight vigil to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4 for the second year in a row, citing COVID-19 concerns.

Youth exodus. Swift changes to the political landscape in the past year have left many Hong Kong residents feeling pessimistic about the city’s future. A poll last month showed 57.5 percent of residents between 15 and 30 years old would opt to leave Hong Kong if they could. Many are already trying. Taiwan has welcomed thousands of white-collar workers and students and quietly offered refuge to dissidents. Britain launched a new route to residency for people from Hong Kong on Jan. 31. In the first two months, more than 34,000 people applied, according to figures published Thursday.


What We’re Following Today

Russia blocks some European flights. Russia has responded to European airlines avoiding transiting over Belarus by refusing to allow some carriers to land in Russia, an apparent escalation on behalf of its problematic ally. Following the forced diversion of a Ryanair flight to Minsk to arrest opposition journalist Roman Protasevich on Sunday, the EU air safety agency recommended bypassing Belarusian airspace. But Moscow has applied its own denials unevenly, as Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon reported. Air France and Austrian Airlines had to cancel flights on Thursday, but others were able to land safely in Russia.

The move came just ahead of a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko in Sochi, Russia, on Friday. The two leaders, who have a complicated relationship, are expected to discuss the Ryanair diversion and the arrest of Protasevich’s girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, who is a Russian citizen.

Boris Johnson meets Viktor Orban. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosts his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban, in London today. Orban is just the second EU leader to meet Johnson since Britain left the bloc, and the British prime minister is under pressure from critics to call out his guest’s abuses of power—though his office would not comment on whether Johnson would discuss human rights issues. A close relationship with Orban, who is skeptical of the EU, cozy with China, and critical of the Biden administration, would be diplomatically risky for Johnson.

Some European leaders may see the meeting as a sign Johnson seeks to disrupt the EU rather than cooperate with it, the Guardian reported.

U.N. launches investigation into Gaza conflict. The United Nations Human Rights Council voted to begin an international investigation into whether Israel and Hamas committed war crimes and other abuses during the latest 11-day conflict, which ended in a cease-fire on May 21. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the decision as one sided. The commission appointed to investigate possible crimes differs from previous ones in that it is classified as “ongoing,” allowing it to conduct an indefinite inquiry with a wide scope, similar to investigations in Syria and Myanmar.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet told the council earlier her office had confirmed 270 Palestinians were killed, including 68 children, during the violence. Hamas rockets killed 10 Israeli residents.


Keep an Eye On 

Olympics plans. The EU and Japan have officially endorsed Tokyo hosting the Olympic Games, set to begin on July 23, citing the EU’s export of 100 million vaccine doses to Japan. Currently, just 5 percent of Japan’s population has received one shot. As a result, the Olympics face significant public opposition in Japan, with one of the country’s major newspapers—and a sponsor of the games—joining the call for the event to be canceled.

The chairperson of the Japan Doctors Union warned Thursday that a “Tokyo Olympic strain” of the coronavirus could emerge if the games go ahead.

Assad wins fourth term. As expected, Syria’s head of parliament announced Thursday that President Bashar al-Assad was reelected with 95 percent of the votes in an election Western critics called fraudulent. The victory gives Assad another seven years in power. Syria’s opposition leader said the vote would only further entrench Syria’s plight after a decade of civil war. “This insistence on clinging to power does not bring stability,” activist Hassan Abdul Azim told Reuters.


Odds and Ends

Perhaps anticipating a wild summer, Airbnb has extended its global ban on house parties until at least the end of the season, limiting occupancy to 16 people at its rental properties in the interest of public health. And in the United States, Canada, France, and Britain, guests under the age of 25 remain banned entirely from renting local homes. The precautions don’t seem to be getting in the way of reservations: The company has already seen a 52 percent jump in booking values as coronavirus lockdowns ease.

Audrey Wilson is a senior editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson

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