China has sharply reduced the number of directly elected seats in Hong Kong’s legislature in another setback for the territory’s beleaguered democracy movement.
The changes were announced on Tuesday after a two-day meeting of China’s top legislature.
The Hong Kong legislature will be expanded to 90 seats, and only 20 will be elected by the public. Currently, half of a 70-seat legislature is directly elected.
The move is part of a two-phase effort to rein in political protest and opposition in Hong Kong, which is part of China but has had a more liberal political system as a former British colony.
Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong last year and is following up this year with a revamp of the electoral process.
The crackdown comes after months of pro-democracy protests in 2019 that brought hundreds of thousands on to the streets and turned violent as the government resisted the movement’s demands.
“It’s a very sad day for Hong Kong. The election system is completely dismantled,” said former legislator and Democratic Party member Emily Lau.
China’s top legislature, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, amended Hong Kong’s constitution to pave the way for the changes. The Hong Kong government is now tasked with revising its electoral laws and holding an election.
In the current 70-member legislature, voters elect half the members and the other half are chosen by constituencies representing various professions and interest groups. Many of the constituencies favour Beijing, ensuring a majority in the legislature.
The new body will have 20 elected members, 30 chosen by the constituencies and 40 by an election committee which also chooses the city’s leader.
The committee, which will be expanded from 1,200 to 1,500 members, is dominated by supporters of the central government in Beijing.
Election hopefuls will undergo vetting by the national security police and a committee that oversees national security in the city.
A new separate body will be established to review the qualifications of candidates for office in Hong Kong to ensure the city is governed by “patriots”, in the language of the central government.
The full National People’s Congress rubber-stamped a proposal in mid-March that authorised the Standing Committee to amend the Basic Law, the constitution that has governed Hong Kong since the former British colony was handed over to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” framework that promised it semi-autonomy for 50 years.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said at a news conference on Tuesday that the new committee to vet candidates will consist of a few government officials who are also trusted by the central government.
She dismissed concerns that the changes will affect plans for the city to achieve universal suffrage and allow residents to vote for their leader.
“I may as well say this very categorically that the central government is very sincere to give Hong Kong people so-called more democracy, that is, universal suffrage,” Ms Lam said.
She blamed pro-democracy legislators for objecting in 2014 to a proposal that would have allowed residents to vote for the chief executive on the condition that Beijing would vet the candidates.
“As we move ahead with the current set of improvements in place, then in accordance with Hong Kong’s actual situation and in an orderly and gradual manner… I’m quite certain that we will still have universal suffrage in selecting the chief executive,” she said.
“We just need to act in concert, and make sure that we are not moving away from this very fundamental concept of ‘one country, two systems’,” she said.
The political opposition in Hong Kong — which has sought more democracy — sees the changes as part of a broader effort to keep them out of office.
“They are going to get rid of opposition voices because under this new system, which is so oppressive and restrictive, I don’t think any self-respecting individual will want to take part,” Ms Lau said.