China has finalized a sweeping plan to ensure leaders in Beijing control the outcome of Hong Kong’s elections, a move that could deepen already-fraught relations with Western nations.
President Xi Jinping on Tuesday signed orders to amend Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the official Xinhua News Agency reported, after revisions were passed by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. The move provides more details on changes approved by China’s legislature on March 12 that called for a “review committee” to vet qualifications of election candidates to ensure they are all patriots loyal to the Communist Party in Beijing.
Chinese lawmakers plan to put fewer than 10 people — all chosen by national security officials — on a committee to vet any candidates for top elected positions in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post reported. Other changes include expanding the number of Legislative Council seats to 90 from 70, reducing the number of directly elected seats in the chamber to 20 from 35, and granting the city’s newly enlarged Election Committee the ability to appoint 40 of the city’s lawmakers, the SCMP reported.
“It will effectively prevent those people who disrupt Hong Kong from entering the Election Committee and Legislative Council through elections,” Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole representative to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, told the SCMP. “It will guarantee we elect people who genuinely defend the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, and are capable of serving the society and citizens, not those who stir up troubles.”
The moves are the latest in China’s efforts to ensure that pro-democracy voices don’t have a path to obtain power in Hong Kong following historic and sometimes-violent protests in 2019. Xi’s call for “patriots” to run the former British colony has neutered the country’s democratic institutions while local authorities prosecute activists who have voiced opposition to the Communist Party.
The U.S., U.K., Japan and the European Union have all condemned China’s moves, with the Biden administration this month tightening sanctions imposed last year by Donald Trump. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called the recent overhaul of the city’s electoral system a “direct attack” on the autonomy China promised to Hong Kong, while U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said the “radical changes” constitute another breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that paved the way for the handover to China in 1997.
China has dismissed Western criticism and stepped up opposition to any organization deemed to be “interfering” in its “internal matters.” The Communist Party last week backed calls to boycott retailers such as Sweden’s Hennes & Mauritz AB for expressing concern about reports of forced labor in the far west region of Xinjiang.
The Legislative Council’s entire pro-democracy bloc resigned en masse last year in protest against efforts to curb dissent, and dozens of former lawmakers and top protest leaders have been jailed on national security charges.
At a regular briefing on Tuesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam defended the changes without adding details, saying that opposition candidates can still run as long as they are patriotic.
“People who hold different political beliefs, who are more inclined toward democracy or who are more conservative, who belong to the left or belong to the right, as long as they meet this very fundamental and basic requirement, I don’t see why they could not run for election,” Lam said.
The changes approved by Beijing also expanded the Election Committee that chooses the chief executive to 1,500 people from 1,200 previously, while eliminating the 117 seats on the body previously allotted to district councilors, the SCMP said. Pro-democracy politicians had gained control of those local bodies following a landslide local election win in late 2019 that would’ve given the opposition influence over the selection of the city’s leader.
Once the details of Hong Kong’s electoral changes are made clear, the local government will have to enact more than 20 pieces of legislation to adopt them, according to Lam. That should be completed by the end of May, Tam told local media in mid-March.
Hong Kong’s government will focus on economic development and address housing issues once the overhaul is completed, according to Zhang Xiaoming, a senior official for Hong Kong affairs in Beijing.
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