Hong Kong is set for more upheaval as China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) considers a proposal to overhaul the territory’s electoral system to ensure “patriots” are in charge, at its week-long annual meeting that began on Friday morning.
Zhang Yesui, a spokesman for the NPC, said on Thursday the rubber-stamp body had the constitutional power to “improve” Hong Kong’s system and that the electoral structure needed to fully implement the principle of “patriots governing Hong Kong” in what could be the biggest blow to the city’s democracy since it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Hong Kong’s Cable TV and Now TV, citing unnamed sources, said the changes would include increasing the size of the election committee that selects Hong Kong’s leader from 1,200 to 1,500 people, and the city’s legislature from 70 to 90 seats.
District councillors would also be removed from the committee that chooses the chief executive, while a new body would be set up under the chief executive to vet all candidates for elected office, according to Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu who is monitoring events in Beijing.
Local media reported the already-delayed legislative council elections would probably deferred for another year until September 2022.
NPC spokesman Zhang Yesui told journalists ‘improvements’ were necessary to Hong Kong’s electoral system to ensure ‘patriots’ were in charge [Yew Lun Tian/Reuters]
Opening the NPC on Friday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said Beijing would “resolutely guard against and deter” interference by external forces in Hong Kong’s affairs.
“China has received a lot of international criticism over the past year due to its reforms in Hong Kong,” Yu said. “And China hasn’t responded with any concessions. It’s responded by doubling down and hardening its stance.”
A spokesman for the Hong Kong government said any changes to the rules governing elections were the “prerogative” of Beijing.
“Only through ‘patriots governing Hong Kong’ can the Central Government’s overall jurisdiction over the HKSAR be effectively implemented, the constitutional order as set out by the Constitution and the Basic Law be effectively safeguarded and the long-term stability and safety of Hong Kong be achieved,” he said in a statement released late on Thursday night.
The reforms are likely to deal a serious blow to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy politicians and activists who have been under pressure since China imposed a broadly-worded national security law on the territory in the wake of last year’s NPC.
Some have gone into exile while others are facing trial under the legislation.
Prominent pro-democracy campaigner and media tycoon Jimmy Lai is currently in jail pending trial under the law on charges of “foreign collusion” while 47 people accused of “subversion” for organising primary elections to choose their candidates for the delayed legislative election, were on Thursday also remanded in custody and mostly denied bail.
Hong Kong, previously a British colony, was guaranteed its widespread freedoms, extensive autonomy and capitalist way of life would continue for at least 50 years under the so-called “one country, two systems” model when China took back control.
Beijing also promised universal suffrage as an ultimate goal for Hong Kong in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, but over the past 20 years has been chipping away at the territory’s freedoms.
The NPC moves are widely expected to deprive Hong Kong’s democratic camp of any hope of winning a majority in the city’s Legislative Council, where pro-democracy candidates have traditionally fared better than pro-Beijing groups in the 50 percent of seats in the chamber that are directly elected.
Anger at China’s perceived tightening grip boiled over in 2019 after the Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam proposed an extradition bill to the mainland. Mass opposition to the law brought millions onto the streets beginning months of protests, which sometimes turned violent.
Hong Kong elected legislators (from left) Dennis Kwok, Alvin Yeung, Kenneth Leung and Kwok Ka-ki, were disqualified from the Legislative Council in November last year after being deemed ‘unpatriotic’ under a law passed by China. The disqualification prompted the mass resignation of Democratic legislators [File: Billy HC Kwok/Bloomberg]
Political scientist Sonny Lo told Reuters news agency the NPC’s planned moves would lead to “reverse democratisation”.
“The democrats will be condemned to be a permanent minority under this system,” he said.
“It will be a bitter lesson for them… It is turning the clock back and it will wipe out all the democratic progress” of the last years of colonial rule and the first 20 years of Hong Kong under Chinese rule.
While critics say the security law has been used to crush dissent and curb freedoms, officials in Beijing and Hong Kong say it had helped restore “stability” to the territory following the 2019 protests.