Parliament’s planned measures to ‘improve’ Hong Kong’s electoral system are likely to further marginalise pro-democracy legislators.
China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) will discuss a proposal to overhaul Hong Kong’s electoral system to ensure “patriots” run the territory when it begins its annual meeting in Beijing on Friday, in what could be the biggest blow to the city’s democracy since it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Zhang Yesui, a spokesman for the NPC, said on Thursday the rubber-stamp body had the constitutional power to “improve” Hong Kong’s system and that the electoral structure needed to fully implement the principle of “patriots governing Hong Kong”.
Hong Kong’s Cable TV and Now TV, citing unnamed sources, said the changes would include increasing the size of the election committee that selects Hong Kong’s leader from 1,200 to 1,500 people, and the city’s legislature from 70 to 90 seats.
District councillors would also be removed from the committee that chooses the chief executive, while a new body would be set up to vet all candidates for elected office and ensure they are “patriots”.
A spokesman for the Hong Kong government said any changes to the electoral system were the “prerogative” of the government in Beijing.
“Only through ‘patriots governing Hong Kong’ can the Central Government’s overall jurisdiction over the HKSAR be effectively implemented, the constitutional order as set out by the Constitution and the Basic Law be effectively safeguarded and the long-term stability and safety of Hong Kong be achieved,” he said in a statement released late on Thursday night.
The reforms are likely to deal a big blow to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy politicians and activists who have been under pressure since China imposed a broadly-worded national security law on the territory following last year’s NPC.
Prominent pro-democracy campaigner Jimmy Lai is currently in jail pending trial under the law on charges of “foreign collusion” while 47 people accused of “subversion” for organising primary elections to choose their candidates for a legislative election that was then delayed, were on Thursday also remanded in custody and mostly denied bail.
Elections for the legislature – already postponed by a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic – will probably be deferred to September 2022, the South China Morning Post newspaper reported on Friday, citing unnamed sources.
Hong Kong, previously a British colony, was guaranteed its widespread freedoms, extensive autonomy and capitalist way of life would continue for at least 50 years under the so-called “one country, two systems” model when China took back control.
Beijing also promised universal suffrage as an ultimate goal for Hong Kong in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, but over the past 20 years has been chipping away at the territory’s freedoms.
The NPC moves are widely expected to deprive Hong Kong’s democratic camp of any hope of winning a majority in the city’s Legislative Council, where pro-democracy candidates have traditionally fared better than pro-Beijing groups in the 50 percent of seats in the chamber that are directly elected.
Anger at China’s perceived tightening grip boiled over in 2019 after the Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam proposed an extradition bill to the mainland. Mass opposition to the law brought millions onto the streets beginning months of protests, which sometimes turned violent.
Political scientist Sonny Lo told Reuters news agency the NPC’s planned moves would lead to “reverse democratisation”.
“The democrats will be condemned to be a permanent minority under this system,” he said.
“It will be a bitter lesson for them… It is turning the clock back and it will wipe out all the democratic progress” of the last years of colonial rule and the first 20 years of Hong Kong under Chinese rule.
While critics say the security law has been used to crush dissent and curb freedoms, officials in Beijing and Hong Kong say it had helped restore “stability” to the territory following the 2019 protests.