In a unanimous and unsurprising decision Tuesday, the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp parliament, endorsed proposed changes to how Hong Kong lawmakers and the city’s leader are chosen.
Prior to these changes, Hong Kong’s 70-seat legislature was more or less split between directly elected seats and so-called functional constituencies, seats chosen by trade and industry bodies that usually favor allies of Beijing. In theory, opposition parties could win a majority in the body, by taking almost every elected seat and a handful of functional constituencies, enabling them to have a major say in how the city is governed.
From Tuesday, that will no longer be possible. Under the new system, the legislature will expand to 90 seats, with 40 of those to be chosen by a newly empowered, mostly government-appointed Election Committee.
The functional constituencies will control 30 seats, while just 20 will be directly elected by the public, the lowest number since Hong Kong was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997.
Those hoping to stand for those seats will face another hurdle: they must secure nominations from each of the five sectors of the Election Committee, something which may be impossible for all but a handful of opposition candidates.
Under the new system, the Election Committee, which is made up of mostly pro-Beijing figures and was previously responsible for selecting the city’s chief executive, will also be overhauled. The 117 seats previously given to district councilors — who are directly elected by the public — will be scrapped in favor of government-appointed positions.
Chinese and Hong Kong officials have described the law changes as necessary to ensure the principle of “patriots governing Hong Kong” in the wake of months-long and often violent anti-government protests in 2019 and the introduction last year of a new, wide-reaching national security law, banning secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces.
That security law had already had a marked effect on the city’s politics, with almost every prominent pro-democracy lawmaker and activist arrested for allegedly breaching it by taking part in a primary election ahead of planned legislative elections last September.
The hope for organizers of the primary was to thin the field of opposition candidates, concentrating votes and giving them a better chance — though still an outside one, statistically — of winning a majority in the legislature. Some figures had suggested an opposition majority could block the government’s budget and maybe even force Chief Executive Carrie Lam to resign.
Prosecutors have argued those proposals constituted subversion, and arrested almost everyone involved in the primary, many of whom now face as much as a decade in prison, their political lives over.
The elections they were planning for were eventually postponed on the grounds of the coronavirus pandemic, and will likely be put off again as the government enacts the new guidelines passed by Beijing. When they do finally go ahead, it may be without an organized opposition, with few figures remaining to rally voters and even fewer who could do so while standing a chance of being approved by the Election Committee.
Speaking earlier this month, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said “there is no so-called international standard of democracy. Every democracy has to look into the proper context of that particular country, or that particular place.”
“We are improving the electoral system by making sure that whoever is governing and administering Hong Kong in future is somebody who loves the country, who loves Hong Kong,” she added.
The United States meanwhile, has described the move by Beijing as an “assault on democracy in Hong Kong.”
In a statement this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the changes to the electoral system were “a direct attack on autonomy promised to people in Hong Kong under the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” which governed the city’s handover from British to Chinese rule, and were contrary to the spirit of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s de facto constitution.
“These actions deny Hong Kongers a voice in their own governance by limiting political participation, reducing democratic representation, and stifling political debate,” he added. “Beijing’s actions also run counter to the Basic Law’s clear acknowledgment that Hong Kong elections should progress towards universal suffrage.”
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