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Beijing cuts Hong Kong's directly elected seats in radical overhaul

Measures are passed to increase Beijing’s control of city, including vetting of election candidates



China has passed sweeping changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system that tighten Beijing’s grip on the city, while leaving a facade of democratic structures in place.

Beijing has amended Hong Kong’s Basic Law, or constitution, to almost halve the proportion of directly elected representatives in the city’s legislature, which already had limited powers, and require all candidates to be vetted for political loyalty.

The changes will also strengthen China’s control over the “election committee” that chooses Hong Kong’s chief executive, expanding its size and abolishing seats that had been held by directly-elected district councillors.

Although these councillors have very limited power, mostly dealing with hyper-local issues such as transport or waste disposal, they are the only officials in the city elected by a direct and universal franchise. Pro-democratic politicians won control of most councils in a landslide victory in 2020 elections.

China and the pro-Beijing administration in Hong Kong have been clear that the changes aim to consolidate control of the city by “patriots” loyal to China’s leadership.

The chief executive, Carrie Lam, held a press conference on the new measures in front of a backdrop that read: “Improve Electoral System, Ensure Patriots Administering Hong Kong.” She is now tasked with revising electoral laws to reflect the changes made by Beijing and holding elections, which she delayed last year citing coronavirus.

“I firmly believe that by improving the electoral system and implementing ‘patriots administering Hong Kong’, the excessive politicisation in society and the internal rift that has torn Hong Kong apart can be effectively mitigated,” Lam said.

The changes are the most significant to the city’s government since British colonial rule ended with the 1997 handover to Beijing, when the Basic Law enshrined limited autonomy and a promise to move towards greater democracy.

The voting system set up then gave Beijing extensive leverage over the city. With only half the legislature directly elected, there was little chance pro-democracy candidates could achieve significant control even if they swept the popular vote.

But seats in the legislature gave the opposition a platform, resources and a voice to oppose controversial laws and policies. The exiled pro-democracy campaigner Nathan Law said the changes meant “there will be no opposition voice in the council hereafter. The freedoms in Hong Kong are dead, and now the elections (as well).”

Under the new system the legislature will be expanded to 90 seats from 70, but the number of directly elected lawmakers cut to 20 from 35. The election committee that also chooses the chief executive will select candidates for a substantial new group of 40 seats.

The remaining 30 seats will be chosen by “functional constituencies” of professions or interest groups, from accountancy to commerce, which have historically been loyal to Beijing .

All candidates will have to be vetted by a new committee, which will be supported by police and check that they have “complied with the National Security Law”, according to pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong.

Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor of politics at the National University of Singapore, said the move appeared “to run against the spirit of having free, fair and competitive elections”.

He said: “Certainly, giving a police force the power to oversee who can stand for elections is not seen in systems usually deemed democratic in a meaningful sense.”

The National Security Law, passed by Beijing last summer, has already been used to crack down on both protests and the broader pro-democracy movement.

The city’s most prominent opposition voices have mostly been jailed, fled into exile or are facing trial, and pro-democracy lawmakers resigned from the legislature in a bloc last year after several of their members were disqualified for being “unpatriotic”.

However, Beijing apparently wanted greater control before the legislative council elections, which Lam said have been rescheduled for December, and the chief executive vote which will be held in March.

Ivan Choy, a senior lecturer at Chinese University of Hong Kong’s department of government and public administration, told Reuters: “They want to increase the safety factor so that in the future, the democrats will not only get very limited seats; if they are not liked by Beijing, they won’t even be able to run in the election.”

He expects the democratic candidates to get, at most, one-sixth, or around 16 seats, in the legislative council of Hong Kong after the changes.
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