Chinese lawmakers have extended the term of Hong Kong’s governing body by a year following a controversial decision last month to postpone local elections in the international finance hub due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader Carrie Lam said in late July that local elections planned for September 6 would be postponed, citing a surge in COVID-19 infections. The move angered pro-democracy supporters who argued the pandemic was being used as a pretext to prevent the people in the semi-autonomous territory from voting.
Beijing’s top lawmaking body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, convened a four-day session on Saturday to discuss whether to extend the term of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo), which will expire on September 30, or to appoint a new “transitional body” to deal with a potential political vacuum.
On Tuesday, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV said the committee had decided LegCo would continue to perform its duties “for no less than one year” until the term of the next council begins. The decision was reportedly passed unanimously – although the fate of several opposition legislators barred from seeking re-election remains unclear.
The resolution to extend the term of LegCo did not mention how the 70 incumbent legislators would be handled.
Last month, authorities in Hong Kong announced that 12 prospective candidates, including four sitting legislators, had been banned from standing in the upcoming polls. They were struck off for having unacceptable political views, such as campaigning to block legislation by winning a majority, or criticising a new national security law imposed by Beijing on the territory in late June.
LegCo President Andrew Leung said the disqualification of the four legislators would apply to the next term, not the extended one.
“What’s not mentioned in the resolution is supposed to be handled by the Hong Kong government,” Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole representative in the top decision-making body of China’s parliament, told AFP news agency.
He dismissed concerns that the resolution would technically allow the Hong Kong legislature, which has been dominated by Beijing loyalists, to work in unlimited extension instead of reshuffling members through election.
In Hong Kong, pro-democracy legislators restated their opposition to the postponement of the election, charging that the vacuum was “fabricated” and that the submission to the National People’s Congress was “unnecessary”, superseding Hong Kong’s constitutional system.
“Around 4.5 million voters’ rights to vote regularly have been deprived. The legislative council … will no longer be authorised by the people,” they said in a statement.
But Beijing’s Hong Kong Liaison Office said the Standing Committee’s decision was in line with the constitution and Basic Law.
The Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council called the decision “important and timely”, while Lam said the move would ensure the regular governance and operations of the city.
The postponement was criticised by the United States and other countries, many of whom have suspended extradition treaties with Hong Kong.