• Reuters, Bloomberg

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Beijing's plans to change Hong Kong's electoral system will protect the city's international role, a senior Chinese official said on Tuesday, as critics decry the move as an end of democratic hopes in the former British colony.

Deputy Commissioner of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong Song Ru'an told reporters the proposed changes were an internal matter for China and were needed to "close obvious loopholes and deficiencies" in the city's political system.

China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress, is expected to approve on Thursday a resolution that will reduce democratic representation in Hong Kong institutions and vet any candidates for "patriotism."

The measures will tweak the size and composition of Hong Kong's legislature and the electoral committee selecting the chief executive further in favor of pro-Beijing figures. The committee will also be given powers to select many legislators.

It was "solely China’s internal affair on how to design and improve the system," Song said, adding "destabilizing forces" had taken advantage of "loopholes" in the past.

Critics have decried Beijing's moves as the end of democratic dreams in the former British colony, whose miniconstitution states universal suffrage as its goal.

Beijing's recent moves, including the imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong outlawing speech deemed subversive or secessionist, have been criticized by the U.S. and U.K. as a violation of China’s treaty commitment to maintain the city’s "high degree of autonomy.” On Monday, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers, including Senators Ed Markey and Mitt Romney, called on the Biden administration to work with allies and partners to support the people of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise of wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms that pro-democracy activists, who brought parts of the city to frequent halts in sometimes violent protests in 2019, say are being whittled away by Communist Party rulers in Beijing.

Only half of its legislature is currently picked through democratic vote, a proportion which will shrink under the new system. Other seats in the legislature and the electoral committee taken by lower-level, democratically elected district council officials, are expected to be scrapped.

The changes to the electoral system follow a series of moves by Beijing to reassert its control over China's most restive city and set it on an increasingly authoritarian path.

China imposed the sweeping national security law in June 2020 and authorities have since arrested most high-profile opposition politicians and activists for offenses under the new law or related to the 2019 protests.

Song said China wanted to create a new "democratic" electoral system, which will "fully respect" the public's democratic rights. He did not elaborate.

Separately on Tuesday, Hong Kong’s top legal official warned residents to steer clear of criticisms of the government that stray too far from the facts.

Hong Kong Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng said in an interview that opinions were "no more than an utterance of no value” if the facts weren’t established. Cheng was answering a question about what kind of criticism would be legal in the former British colony after Beijing finishes enacting a wave of legislation including a national security law, as well as the electoral changes.

"Some of the statements that are sometimes uttered, that we hear, are actually not based on facts, or perhaps oblivious of the facts that exist,” Cheng told Bloomberg Television. "And I think that is what one has to be very careful not to embark upon.”

Cheng, who was among senior officials sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in August on allegations of "undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy,” on Tuesday reiterated the government’s argument that the security law had restored stability. "Please look at the actual facts and then see what’s happening in Hong Kong,” she said in response to the lawmakers’ statement.

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