China’s rubber-stamped parliament on Thursday voted in favor of sweeping changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system – including powers to veto candidates – as Beijing moves to ensure that only “patriots” run the city after large democratic rallies.
Beijing has taken decisive action to dismantle Hong Kong’s limited democratic pillars following massive and sometimes violent protests through the 2019 financial hub.
At last year’s National People’s Congress meeting, the Communist Party’s leadership introduced a draconian national security law against Hong Kong, which has since been armed against the democracy movement.
Dozens of campaigns have been prosecuted or imprisoned and stifled protests in a city that enjoyed greater political freedoms than the authoritarian mainland during a “one country, two system” arrangement set up when Britain handed over territory to China in 1997.
On Thursday, only one member of the 2896-strong National People’s Congress abstained in the vote, which critics say will hammer another nail in the coffin of Hong Kong’s democracy movement.
The decision aims to place the responsibility for running the city in the hands of “Hong Kong-controlled patriots,” Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang told reporters after the vote.
Senior Chinese officials have made it clear that loyalty to the Communist Party will be the key to determining whether a Hong Konger is a “patriot.”
On Thursday, Chinese state media outlined some of the most important provisions of the law, which still need to be written and then communicated under the country’s opaque political system.
Hong Kong’s influential election committee, which elects the city’s leaders and is already piled with Beijing’s loyalists, will be expanded to 1,500 representatives, up from 1,200.
A separate committee will also be set up for veterinarians to read the candidates’ political views, while the number of seats in LegCo – Hong Kong’s Legislative Assembly – will increase from 70 to 90.
At present, only 35 seats in the House are directly elected and it is not yet clear what the future share will be.
But analysts said the initial details showed that China plans to reduce the influence of directly elected officials in both LegCo and the committee that selects the CEO.
“It is a safe formula to ensure that only people who are considered patriots will be on the two key bodies,” Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Center for China Studies, told AFP.
“From Beijing’s point of view, members of the coalition for democracy are not considered patriotic.”
Victoria Tin-bor Hui, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, took a similar view and told AFP: “The new election arrangements will ensure that there is no chance for any democratic person to participate in elections at all. ”
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the plan would “erode the scope for democratic debate in Hong Kong, contrary to the promises made by China”.
“This can only undermine the confidence and confidence that China is living up to its international responsibilities,” he said.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price called the move “a direct attack on Hong Kong’s economy, its freedoms and democratic processes” in order to “stifle the political debate” in the city.
And the European Union warned China late on Thursday that it could take “further steps” in response to the vote.
“The People’s Republic of China’s National People’s Congress today adopted a decision that will have a significant impact on democratic accountability and political pluralism in Hong Kong,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement on behalf of the 27-nation bloc.
Hong Kong’s leader for Beijing, Carrie Lam, was quick to applaud the plan to rewrite her wall landscape.
“The Hong Kong Government and I support the decision and express our gratitude from the bottom of our hearts,” Lam said.
At a press conference after the announcement, she was filled with questions about whether the move will leave Hong Kong with a legislator with a rubber stamp without any opposition like the one on the Chinese mainland.
“It’s not to show the opposition … it’s about upholding the important principle of patriots administering Hong Kong,” she said.
Aides have acknowledged that the move is a “setback” to Hong Kong’s progress in democratic development, according to Bernard Chan, a senior adviser to Lam, earlier this week.
“For the past 23 years, we have clearly not done a good job of showing the central government that these so-called political reforms are actually helping ‘One country, two systems,'” Chan told AFP.
China pledged to give Hong Kong some autonomy when it returned from British colonial rule in 1997, a status that has developed in recent months – with international criticism.
Under the system, Hong Kong held a veneer of choice, allowing a small and loud opposition to flourish in certain local elections.
In general, when the Hong Kongers were allowed to vote, they voted en masse for pro-democracy candidates.
In recent years, however, the authorities have increased the disqualification of politicians who either sit in the city’s half-elected legislature or stand as candidates, based on their political views.
Last month, Hong Kong announced its own plans to adopt a law reaffirming all public officials for their political loyalty to Beijing.
Political scientist Hui said that what remains uncertain is whether Beijing can turn Hong Kong to its liking: “capitalism without freedom.”
“Can Beijing maintain Hong Kong’s international economic status after killing its freedom?” she asked.
( Jowharwith AFP)