China moves to overhaul Hong Kong’s electoral system in ‘great leap backwards’ for city’s democracy


(BEIJING) — Beijing is poised to block any remaining avenues for the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, leaving the opposition with no way to attain elected office in the Chinese territory.

China’s decision-makers are expected to grant Beijing vetoing powers over selecting Hong Kong lawmakers as part of a wide-reaching campaign to wipe out pro-democracy politicians and make sure that only pro-Beijing loyalists have any real power in the city.

The major changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system were confirmed at China’s annual meeting of parliament, the National People’s Congress, which began on Friday.

The proposed reform will be rubber-stamped at the end of the week-long meeting and attended by thousands of delegates in the capital.

Speaking on Friday morning, NPC spokesman Zhang Yesui said the system needs to be upgraded “to provide institutional guarantees and the principle of patriots administering Hong Kong.”

“The National People’s Congress is the supreme organ of state power. It will improve the Hong Kong SAR system consistent with the constitution,” Wang said.

Willy Lam, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that although full details of the plan are yet to be announced, it looks as though a “vetting committee” will be set up to screen politicians.

“Would-be candidates, people who want to be elected to the legislature or the electoral college which selects chief executives, would have to be vetted before they can be allowed to apply,” Lam said.

Other proposed plans in the pipeline to reform the electoral system include scrapping the right for district councilors to vote in chief executive elections or occupy seats in the legislature.

That would effectively shut out the opposition camp, which won more than 80% of the vote in the 2019 local elections.

“I’m afraid there may be no more place for the opposition,” Lam said. “But of course Hong Kong still has a well-established civil society, even though they have to be extremely cautious because they may be detained or arrested for speaking out against the government.”

Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong has intensified since it imposed a national security law last summer, which it said was necessary to restore peace after mass protests in 2019.

“There’s been a change in the way Beijing wants to run Hong Kong. Before this, at least a small space was offered to members of the opposition to give their opinions on various major policies — even though in most cases their opinions came to nothing [and] they were not powerful enough to influence policy, but there was a room for them to voice their different views,” Lam said.

Former democrat lawmaker Fernando Cheung told ABC News that the proposed changes are “an effort to further tighten the system so that only those who are blessed by Beijing would stand a chance to run for public offices.”

“It’s a great leap backwards for Hong Kong’s democracy,” Cheung said.

The move goes against the agreements drawn up before Hong Kong was handed back to Chinese rule from Britain in 1997. In Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, Beijing vowed that “one person, one vote” would be the ultimate goal.

“It’s a blatant violation of the Basic Law, given that it has promised Hong Kong people that we should move toward universal suffrage, in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress,” Cheung said.

The latest directives from Beijing come as 47 pro-democracy leaders faced court on charges of subversion for holding an unofficial primary vote last year. After a grueling four days of hearings, 15 were granted bail late Thursday night.

It leaves dozens of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leaders either in prison or in exile.

Political scientist Lam said the verdict is meant to send “a clear message that the opposition should keep silent, should not show defiance.”

“It is a very tough warning to the opposition to follow Beijing’s instructions, otherwise they too might fall into some kind of trouble,” he continued.

However, there are growing signs that China’s intensifying crackdown is having a negative impact on Hong Kong’s status as a global financial hub.

The Washington-based Heritage Foundation recently dropped Hong Kong from its Index of Economic Freedom. The city had topped the list for more than two decades before it was dethroned by Singapore last year.

Editors said that developments in Hong Kong and Macau show “unambiguously” that policies are ultimately controlled by Beijing.

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