Chinese leaders have endorsed a sweeping overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system, cutting the number of directly elected seats and ensuring that a majority of the city’s lawmakers will be selected by a reliably pro-Beijing committee.
The measures, which bypassed Hong Kong’s legislature and were imposed directly by Beijing, are the latest move aimed at quashing the city’s democracy movement after huge protests.
The changes to Hong Kong’s basic law – the mini-charter that gifted the city special freedoms after its handover by Britain in 1997 – were agreed by China’s top decision-making body, the standing committee of the National People’s Congress.
The committee has amended Hong Kong’s constitution to pave the way for the changes. The Hong Kong government is now tasked with revising its electoral laws and holding an election.
Under the measures, anyone hoping to enter Hong Kong’s political scene will need to be vetted by a committee to ensure the city is governed by “patriots”, and the number of directly elected seats will be reduced from half to less than a quarter.
“The national security committee and the national security police will provide reports on every single candidate to assist the vetting by the qualification review committee,” said Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole delegate on China’s rubber-stamp parliament.
Under the new law, Hong Kong’s legislature will be expanded from 70 to 90 seats. Twenty seats will now be directly elected, down from 35. Forty will be chosen by a reliably pro-Beijing committee, and the remaining 30 will be chosen by “functional constituencies” – bodies representing certain industries and special interest groups that have been historically loyal to Beijing.
Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor of politics at the National University of Singapore, said the move appeared “to run against the spirit of having, free, fair and competitive elections.”
He said: “Certainly, giving a police force the power to oversee who can stand for elections is not seen in systems usually deemed democratic in a meaningful sense.”
The sweeping changes were approved in a 167-0 vote during China’s annual NPC meeting around two weeks ago. The UK announced that China was no longer compliant with Hong Kong’s joint declaration, which had guaranteed freedoms until at least 2047, and the US railed at the stifling of democracy.
China’s leaders have acted decisively to dismantle Hong Kong’s limited democratic pillars after massive protests in 2019, imposing a national security law that has been weaponised against its democracy movement.
Dozens of campaigners have been prosecuted or jailed, smothering protests in a city that had enjoyed greater political freedoms than the authoritarian mainland under the “one country, two systems” arrangement. Beijing has trumpeted the electoral reform as the second of a “combination of punches” to quell unrest, alongside the security law.
The withering of Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms is one of the key fronts opening up between the west and China, which insists the territory is an internal affair. Joe Biden sees the corralling of the city’s freedoms as part of a wider China-led assault on democracy and rights, including the treatment of Muslim minorities in the north-western Xinjiang region.