China’s NPC is expected to approve rule changes that will reduce the space for pro-democracy candidates.
The United Kingdom and the United States have strongly condemned moves by China to further reduce political participation and representation in Hong Kong, as the territory announced a second delay to Legislative Council elections that were supposed to have taken place last September.
The UK said that the latest changes put China in breach of the 1984 Joint Declaration under which Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
“Today China enacted changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system which are a clear breach of the Joint Declaration – undermining the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong and breaking Beijing’s international obligations,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Tuesday.
Hong Kong’s autonomy was guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” framework enshrined in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration signed by then-Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
A US State Department spokesman said the US was “deeply concerned” by the changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system, adding that the government is defying the “will of people in Hong Kong”.
The new measures, which bypassed Hong Kong’s legislature and were imposed directly by Beijing, are the latest moves aimed at quashing the city’s democracy movement after huge protests.
President Xi Jinping signed the legislation after it was unanimously approved by China’s top decision-making body.
One of the most dramatic changes is the introduction of a committee that will vet anyone hoping to enter Hong Kong politics for their “patriotism”.
The process will include background checks by the territory’s new national security apparatus and its decisions cannot be legally challenged.
Last year, Beijing imposed a national security law in Hong Kong, which critics say was an attempt to stifle dissent and another part of China’s efforts to consolidate its grip on the city.
@HKDemocrats chair @lokinhei said room for opposition drastically reduce under the change, and will create greater challenge and problems for Hong Kong in future. He said the change could reduce incentives for party members to run, although no decision was made. pic.twitter.com/A1cKXoysRG
— Alvin Lum (@alvinllum) March 30, 2021
The US spokesman, who did not want to be identified by name, said Beijing must uphold its international obligations under the Joint Declaration.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the changes would be submitted to the territory’s Legislative Council (LegCo) by mid-April and she expected to see them passed by the end of May.
Legislative Council elections, already postponed by a year to September 2021 with the government citing the coronavirus, would be held in December, she said.
“We are … deeply concerned by the delay of the September LegCo elections for the second time,” the US spokesman added.
The United States has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong and announced an end to the special economic treatment the territory had long enjoyed under US law.
Hong Kong currently has limited representative democracy and when given the opportunity often vote for pro-democracy candidates, as in the 2019 district council polls which the pro-democracy camp won in a landslide.
Under the new measures, the city’s legislature will be expanded from 70 to 90 seats.
But only 20 of those seats will be directly elected, down from 35 in the previous system. That brings direct representation down from half to less than a quarter of seats.
The majority of members – 40 – will be chosen by a reliably pro-Beijing committee. The remaining 30 will be picked by “functional constituencies” – bodies representing certain industries and special interest groups that have also been historically loyal to Beijing.
The measures were welcomed by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government, which will no longer have to face a pro-democracy opposition in the legislature.
“The excessive politicisation in society and the internal rift that has torn Hong Kong apart can be effectively mitigated,” said Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Opposition figures and some analysts took a less rosy view, describing the new measures as a clear move to ensure any remaining opposition to Beijing’s rule is stamped out.
“This whole new system is really degrading and very oppressive,” Emily Lau, a former pro-democracy legislator told the AFP news agency.
Lau questioned whether Hong Kong people would want to take part in future elections and warned political unrest could explode again.
Lo Kin-hei, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong, said that with the drastic reduction of room for opposition in the city will only create “greater challenge and problems” in the future.
He said the change could reduce incentives for party members to run, although no decision has been made.
Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor on politics from the National University of Singapore, said the new measures “seem to run against the spirit of having, free, fair and competitive elections, limiting popular participation in the political process.
“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,” he told AFP.