China has passed sweeping changes to Hong Kong’s electoral rules which will tighten its control over the city.
The number of directly elected seats in parliament has been cut almost by half, and prospective MPs will first be vetted by a pro-Beijing committee to ensure their loyalty to the mainland.
The aim is to ensure only “patriotic” figures can run for positions of power.
Critics warn it will mean the end of democracy, as it removes all opposition from the city parliament.
Beijing’s rubber-stamp parliament first approved the plan during the National People’s Congress (NPC) meetings earlier in March.
On Tuesday, Chinese state media reported that the country’s top decision-making body, the NPC Standing Committee, voted unanimously to pass it. This amends the annexes of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam is due to hold a press conference soon on the changes.
All opposition to the Chinese Communist Party has effectively been obliterated from formal politics in Hong Kong.
When these changes were announced a few weeks ago, they drew criticism internationally.
On Twitter, Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne spoke of her country’s concern that the new arrangements in the territory would “weaken its democratic institutions”. That was being kind.
The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, described the moves as an “assault on democracy”.
The truth is, the city’s electoral system was already rigged to ensure that the “pro-Beijing” camp could never lose control of the mini-parliament, the Legislative Council.
Its leader, the chief executive, was already directly chosen by a pro-Beijing committee.
The last time the only real elections in Hong Kong were held – those for local governments – the pro-democracy camp took control of all but one district council right across the city.
This clearly spooked Beijing so now they’ve stopped pro-democracy candidates from standing at all.
What are the changes, and what do they mean for Hong Kong?
State news outlet Xinhua has reported a list of reforms which, among other things, impact the way Hong Kong’s parliamentary Legislative Council (LegCo) is formed, effectively making it easier to bar politicians deemed critical of Beijing.
The number of directly elected LegCo members falls from 35 to 20, while LegCo’s size is increased from 70 to 90 seats – thus diluting the influence of democratically-elected politicians.
All prospective LegCo candidates will now have to go through two rounds of vetting before they can run, by the powerful pro-Beijing Election Committee as well as a new screening committee.
The changes come months after several opposition lawmakers were disqualified, which led to the entire opposition in LegCo resigning.
If a future veto keeps critics out of LegCo, such public embarrassments would be much less likely.
The legal amendments will take effect on Wednesday, and Hong Kong will change its local laws to reflect them in coming weeks. Several local elections are coming up in 2021.
What’s the background?
Britain handed back Hong Kong to China in 1997, and the Basic Law was created under the handover agreement under the “one country, two systems” principle.
This essentially gives Hong Kong more freedoms than the mainland, freedoms which are supposed to remain intact until 2047.
But in recent years Beijing has gradually stepped up its influence on Hong Kong.
After years of pro-democracy protests, fresh demonstrations in 2019 escalated into waves of violence between activists and police – and major gains for the opposition in local elections.
In 2020, Beijing then passed a controversial national security law, also adding it to a Basic Law annex, which essentially reduced Hong Kong’s judicial autonomy and made it easier to punish demonstrators.
Since then, a string of critics have been arrested under the law, which carries life in prison as a maximum sentence.
Critics have alleged that with these moves to assert more control over Hong Kong, China is undermining the “one country, two systems” principle, but Beijing denies this.
For example, there is controversy over whether the “patriot” electoral reforms change the Basic Law and violate the handover agreement.
While Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing camp says the changes do not have an impact on the mini-constitution, as only its annexes are being amended, the pro-democracy side insists they do.
“Technically, it’s not a change to the Basic Law,” Ian Chong, politics professor at the National University of Singapore, told the BBC.
“But in terms of [affecting] the spirit of having competitive elections and moving towards universal suffrage, it would be.”