Beijing is rewriting Hong Kong’s electoral system to eliminate any challenge to its authority from the city’s local legislature, closing one of the last avenues of dissent in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
The Legislative Council has for decades played a crucial role in the city’s pro-democracy movement by allowing popularly elected lawmakers to debate policy and electoral reform. On Friday, China’s Communist Party-led parliament said it would restrict who could run for these positions to ensure that the city is governed only by loyalists.
Analysts have described the planned move as a grave assault on Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, which Beijing said it would preserve for at least 50 years after the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
“This is really turning Hong Kong into the rest of China, except Tibet and Xinjiang,” said Victoria Hui, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame in the United States. “There is really no room for dissent.”
The expected changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system followed Beijing’s mass crackdown on the city’s pro-democracy activists after a year of fiery protests rattled China’s leaders. Beijing has since imposed an expansive national security law for Hong Kong that has led to the arrest and jailing of the bulk of the city’s active opposition leaders.
China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, is planning to give a group of mostly Beijing loyalists power to nominate all lawmakers, according to Wang Chen, a senior parliamentary official. The group, called the Election Committee, traditionally does Beijing’s bidding in picking the city’s leader.
The plan also seeks to change the composition of the Election Committee, Wang said, without detailing how. Hong Kong media have reported that Beijing is looking to scrap 117 seats for elected district councilors that are likely to be taken by opposition activists.
Speaking at the opening session of the annual parliamentary meeting on Friday, Wang said “anti-China” and “radical separatist forces” had been pushing their causes from the city’s legislature and district councils.
He said the electoral changes would plug the “loopholes” in Hong Kong’s current electoral system and ensure the city is only governed by “patriots.”
A guideline for the electoral reform is expected to be passed next week. Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has said she welcomes the upcoming changes, saying they will help ensure the city’s prosperity and stability.
While details of the plan are yet to be announced, analysts say the Chinese leadership is seeking to eliminate all possibilities for opposition politicians to join Hong Kong’s governing bodies.
Hui, of Notre Dame University, said Beijing was likely surprised by democracy advocates’ landslide victory in district council elections in 2019, which demonstrated strong public support for the protest movement.
The large turnout in the unofficial primaries of the Legislative Council elections held by the pro-democracy camp in July also alerted the Chinese leadership, she said.
“[Beijing] was like ‘oh, we had those safeguards to keep the opposition always in perpetual minority, but apparently that wasn’t enough,’” Hui said. “They have to make sure there is going to be no chance.”
Citing their goal to win a majority in the 70-member legislature and block government bills, Hong Kong authorities invoked the national security law to arrest the candidates in the primaries.
On Sunday, 47 opposition politicians involved in the July polls were charged with conspiracy to commit subversion, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Most of them have been denied bail and remain in custody.
The Hong Kong government has in the past disqualified pro-democracy politicians, including Joshua Wong, from running in legislative elections. It has also postponed a legislature election scheduled last year, citing COVID-19 risks. In November, opposition lawmakers resigned en masse after the government dismissed four of their colleagues on national security grounds.
Democracy supporters say they are frustrated with the changes in the past few months that have crushed any hope for democratization.
A lawyer in her 40s, who joined a crowd outside a courthouse on Thursday to support the 47 activists being charged with subversion, said she was deeply disappointed by the declining freedoms. She refused to be named for fear of retaliations.
“It is getting worse and worse,” she said. “Before it was like boiling a frog in warm water, and now the frog has died.”
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