The Chinese leadership is drastically increasing control on Hong Kong’s governance by introducing a mechanism to vet candidates’ loyalty to Beijing and reducing the share of directly elected lawmakers.
The proposed change, passed in China’s rubber-stamp parliament on Thursday with zero objections and one abstention from 2,896 national lawmakers, is expected to keep the names of democracy activists out of the ballots before they are put to a vote in Hong Kong.
Although pro-Beijing politicians have controlled the city’s executive and legislative branches since the former British colony was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997, the victory of democracy activists in direct elections have both embarrassed and alarmed the establishment.
In the 2012 legislative elections, pro-democracy candidates took 18 of the 35 seats that were directly elected through geographical constituencies. And during the elections of district councilors in Nov. 2019, held in the midst of a violent protest movement, about 57 percent of the 3 million votes were cast to politicians supporting the protests.
Chinese officials say it was “loopholes” in Hong Kong’s electoral systems that led to those victories.
“We cannot allow the anti-China, Hong Kong-destroying people to continue blatantly sitting inside the legislative chamber,” Zhang Xiaoming, a senior Chinese official in charge of Hong Kong, said on Friday. “Even one is too many.”
Zhang said those deemed “unpatriotic” would be kept out of the city’s governance, but they would still be allowed to live and work in Hong Kong. “You will still be able to hear different voices in the legislative council, including voices critical of the government,” he said.
The election reform is part of Beijing’s crackdown on the city’s pro-democracy camp, after a year of fiery protests rattled China’s leaders. Beijing has since imposed an expansive national security law for Hong Kong that has led to the arrest and jailing of the bulk of the city’s active opposition leaders.
In the future, an election committee filled with mostly Beijing loyalists will be empowered to nominate candidates for Hong Kong’s governor and legislators, according to the official proposal released on Thursday.
While the size of the legislature will be expanded from 70 to 90, the proportion chosen through direct elections will shrink. The rest of the seats will represent industries and interest groups—most of which traditionally go to pro-Beijing figures—or be selected by the election committee.
All candidates will be vetted by a new screening committee, which is expected to replace the current candidate screening done by a judge-led Electoral Affairs Commission in Hong Kong.
“The Chinese Communist Party does not trust the people of Hong Kong. It does not trust the Hong Kong government, and doesn’t trust the civil service,” said John Burns, a professor of politics and public administration at the University of Hong Kong.
Burns said Beijing is imposing a Leninist view of democracy on Hong Kong: the Communist Party is uniquely qualified to determine the interest of the people, regardless of what the popular views are.
But the party has so far refrained from exercising complete control on the parliament like it does in mainland China, because it wants to gauge the opinions of the business community, Burns said.
“The Communist Party is interested in avoiding capital flight in Hong Kong. It is interested in maintaining business interests in Hong Kong,” he said. “It doesn’t care whether people here like this electoral thing or not. That’s irrelevant.”
Countries including the United States and the United Kingdom have criticized China for allegedly going back on its 1997 promise of granting Hong Kong autonomy and freedoms for 50 years.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the electoral reform plan an “assault on democracy.” “These actions deny Hong Kongers a voice in their own governance by limiting political participation, reducing democratic representation, and stifling political debate,” he said in a statement on Thursday.
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