China Grabs Hold of Hong Kong Elections With Patriot-Only Rule
(Bloomberg) -- Chinese lawmakers approved an extensive overhaul of how Hong Kong chooses its leaders, ensuring that Beijing can have a veto over any elected official in the Asian financial hub’s political system.
With President Xi Jinping watching, the National People’s Congress passed near unanimously a proposal Thursday to change the size and composition of the body that picks the city’s chief executive, and have it nominate local legislators. The rubber-stamp parliament also established a vetting committee to ensure candidates for the positions including the Legislative Council are “patriots,” effectively ending China’s only experiment with open elections.
The move amounted to a “total purge of democratic figures” who have played a prominent role in the former British colony since the handover 24 years ago, said Kenneth Chan, an associate professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.
“This is the second handover because the first one wasn’t very successful in Beijing’s eyes,” he said. “The newly elected or selected LegCo members will be President Xi’s men and women.”
Japan, the European Union, the U.K. and the U.S. expressed concern about the vote, which U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called a “direct attack” on the autonomy promised to Hong Kong. “These actions deny Hong Kongers a voice in their own governance by limiting political participation, reducing democratic representation, and stifling political debate,” Blinken said, adding that authorities should hold open elections this year as previously planned and release jailed opposition figures.
Lawmakers in the Great Hall of the People erupted in applause after the results were announced: Some 2,895 delegates approved the revamp, with one abstention and none voting against a measure only placed on the agenda a week ago that wasn’t made public in full until after the vote. China’s national parliament has never voted down legislation submitted by the Communist Party leadership.
The measure puts the force of law behind Xi’s call for “patriots” to run Hong Kong after a historic wave of pro-democracy protests in 2019. The NPC’s Standing Committee -- a legislative body of about 175 members that meets every two months -- is now expected to flesh out the overhaul before handing down the final plan for Hong Kong to implement.
The process mirrors how Beijing imposed a broad national security law on the city last year without public debate. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Monday that the revamp would require the city’s Legislative Council to enact “more than 20 pieces of principal and subsidiary legislation,” which would be pushed through without the usual public consultations.
The legislation will establish a “review committee” that vets qualifications of candidates for office, according to a text of the overhaul published by the official Xinhua News Agency moments after the vote. The 1,200-member body that picks chief executive candidates will be expanded by 300 seats, and the Legislative Council will have 90 seats, up from 70.
Not only would the moves would reduce the relative power of individual members, they would will also roll back the number of legislative seats chosen by ordinary voters. Scenarios being considered could lead to as few as 22% of Legislative Council seats being directly elected, compared with 50% currently, local media including the HK01 news site reported.
Hong Kong’s opposition has been decimated in the political battles of recent months. The Legislative Council’s entire pro-democracy bloc resigned en masse last year in protest against efforts to curb dissent, and dozens of former lawmakers and top protest leaders have been jailed on national security charges.
Lam has said she was unsure whether legislative elections planned for September would be delayed again, citing “a mammoth task ahead of us.”
In a news briefing after the vote, Lam defended the decision as necessary to reduce politicization and the influence of “foreign forces,” and to allow the government to improve the economy. She rejected concern that the overhaul would reduce oversight on the government, saying “the executive needs to be monitored and scrutinized by the Legislative Council.”
Zhang Xiaoming, a senior official for Hong Kong affairs in Beijing, also hinted at economic measures at a separate briefing Monday. “After improving the Hong Kong election system, the SAR government will have the right conditions to focus their attention on seeking economic development, solving housing and other pressing livelihood issues,” Zhang said, referring to the city’s status as a special administrative region.
What is meant by “patriots” or who would decide who gets that label remained unclear. A senior Chinese diplomat in Hong Kong said this week that patriots were expected to “respect the Chinese Communist Party,” a position Lam echoed Thursday.
Senior Chinese lawmaker Wang Chen told NPC deputies on March 5 that the electoral overhaul was necessary to prevent “anti-China forces” from “seizing the Legislative Council and seizing jurisdiction over Hong Kong.” Wang and Lam were among the officials sanctioned by the U.S. in August over their roles in eroding the “high degree of autonomy” guaranteed to Hong Kong after its return to Chinese rule in 1997.
China’s latest move would “further undermine confidence and trust in China living up to its international responsibilities.” U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement. “This is the latest step by Beijing to hollow out the space for democratic debate in Hong Kong, contrary to the promises made by China itself.”
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With assistance from Bloomberg