Chinese Officials Vote Unanimously to Gut Hong Kong’s Free Elections

A national security committee controlled by Beijing will vet Hong Kong’s politicians before they can run for office.
March 30, 2021, 10:36am
Hong Kong electoral system approval Beijing
A national security committee will work with the local police and authorities to determine candidates' eligibility. Photo: Jayne RUSSELL / AFP

China’s leaders have approved a radical overhaul of Hong Kong’s elections, closing one of the last official avenues for political opposition in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

The ruling by 167 officials empowers a secretive committee controlled by Beijing to screen all candidates, ostensibly for national security reasons, before they can run in the city’s legislative elections. 

The Committee for Safeguarding National Security, led by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam and a top Chinese official, will work with the local police and authorities to determine whether a candidate is eligible for office. Any decision to bar someone from running will not be open to challenges in court, according to the plan endorsed on Tuesday.

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The move effectively gutted the last meaningful and free elections in the former British colony. 

Currently, half of the city’s legislature, the Legislative Council, is directly elected by Hong Kong’s voters. These elections have been a barometer of support for Beijing’s policy in Hong Kong since the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems.” The city’s pro-democracy opposition had enjoyed a slight but consistent majority over pro-Beijing lawmakers and looked set to expand its lead in upcoming elections.

But a new vetting mechanism, along with a slew of other revisions of the electoral system, will ensure that Beijing loyalists have full control over elections in Hong Kong.

Details of the new system were released to the Hong Kong public only after they were written into the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, on Tuesday morning. The changes take effect on Wednesday. 

In a video released by Chinese state media, 167 leaders of China’s rubber-stamp national parliament unanimously pressed the “approve” button to pass the constitutional changes and clapped. 

China’s ruling Communist Party has launched a mass crackdown on the city’s pro-democracy activists after a year of fiery protests that led to violent clashes between protesters and police. Beijing has since imposed an expansive national security law for Hong Kong, which allowed the police to arrest the bulk of the city’s opposition leaders.

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The changes will likely spell the end of the Hong Kong Legislative Council’s role in challenging government policies as opposition politicians are kept out of the ballots. 

Under the new election rules, a 1,500-member Election Committee filled by mostly pro-Beijing politicians and industry representatives will nominate legislative candidates and directly choose 40 of the 90 lawmakers.

117 seats for elected district councilors in the Election Committee, which were likely to be taken by opposition activists following their landslide victory in the middle of the 2019 protest movement, have been scrapped. 

In the Legislative Council, the share of lawmakers directly elected through geographical constituencies–seats that used to be filled by mostly pro-democracy politicians–has been reduced from 50 percent to 22 percent.

On Tuesday afternoon, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam defended the changes as necessary to prevent opposition leaders from “destroying” Hong Kong. She said people from the pro-democracy camp would still be able to get nominations, as long as they were “patriots.”

“What is the best system of democracy?” Lam said. “I am one of those who will not subscribe to the view that there is one single model of democracy.” 

Hong Kong’s democracy advocates and some Western governments have accused Beijing of going back on its 1997 promise of granting Hong Kong a wide range of freedoms and a high degree of autonomy for 50 years.

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Lo Kin-hei, the chairman of the opposition Democratic Party, told reporters on Tuesday that under the new electoral system, Hong Kong’s governance bodies would have fewer voices that could represent public opinions. 

“The major problem that we are facing is not just about housing, not just about whether or not young people have social mobility, it is about whether the system can actually reflect what Hong Kong people think,” he said. “This change... makes the problem worse.” 

In a statement, Beijing’s powerful liaison office in Hong Kong, whose director will help vet candidates, said the electoral overhaul marked “a new stage” in the development of democracy.

“After getting out of the mire of political disputes, Hong Kong will better tackle deep-rooted economic and livelihood problems, and better integrate into the big-picture national development,” the statement said.

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.