Hong Kong is set for more political upheaval as Chinas National Peoples Congress (NPC) considers a proposal to overhaul the territorys electoral system to ensure patriots are in charge, at its week-long annual meeting that began on Friday.
Ahead of the meeting, Zhang Yesui, a spokesman for the NPC, stressed that the rubber-stamp body had the constitutional power to improve Hong Kongs system and that the electoral structure needed to fully implement the principle of patriots governing Hong Kong.
Hong Kongs Cable TV and Now TV, citing unnamed sources, said the changes would include increasing the size of the election committee that selects Hong Kongs leader from 1,200 to 1,500 people, and the citys 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 Jazeeras Katrina Yu who is monitoring events in Beijing.
Local media reported the already-delayed legislative council elections would be deferred for another year until September 2022.
NPC spokesman Zhang Yesui told journalists improvements were necessary to Hong Kongs 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 Kongs affairs.
China has received a lot of international criticism over the past year due to its reforms in Hong Kong, Yu said. And China hasnt responded with any concessions. Its 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 Governments 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, the spokesman said in a statement released late on Thursday night.
According to an #NPC draft law on #HongKong Beijing will essentially remove much of the systems democratic elements: shrinking the number of seats given to elected officials, adding seats from pro-China groups & giving Carrie Lam powers to screen Legislative Council candidates
Katrina Yu (@Katmyu) March 5, 2021
Essentially HKs LegCo will become a mainland-style provincial peoples congress, no longer a genuine independent legislature. Also marks the death of 3-way separation of powers in HK, effectively fusing the legislative & executive branches. Only the judiciary left to go https://t.co/Q1VC9Z0Dk7
Antony Dapiran (@antd) March 5, 2021
The reforms are likely to deal a serious blow to Hong Kongs pro-democracy politicians and activists who have been under pressure since China imposed a broadly-worded national security law on the territory that had been swiftly approved at last years 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 framework devised during the run-up to the handover in 1997.
In the territorys mini-constitution, the Basic Law, Beijing also promised universal suffrage as an ultimate goal, but over the past 20 years has been chipping away at the territorys freedoms.
Currently 50 percent of the seats in the Legislative Council are chosen by direct election and pro-democracy candidates have traditionally done better than the establishment and pro-Beijing candidates.
This is more than going backwards, its getting close to the opposite extreme, moving further away from universal suffrage, said Ivan Choy, senior lecturer at Chinese University of Hong Kongs department of government and public administration, referring to the planned changes.
Anger at Chinas perceived tightening grip over the territory 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]
Despite Beijings expectation that the unrest would play into its hands during district council elections in November 2019 amid a ferocious confrontation between police and protesters at the Polytechnic University democrats won a landslide victory taking home nearly 90 percent of the 452 seats.
While the councils handle largely mundane tasks like rubbish collection, they are the citys only fully democratic institution and the democracy camp had hoped to leverage on that success in the main legislative council.
Since then, however, councillors and Legislative Council members have been disqualified from office as unpatriotic prompting the mass resignation of the remaining Democrats in the Legislative Council.
Under the proposed changes, district council officials will no longer be part of the election committee or the Legislative Council, according to local media.
China says the security law has brought stability to Hong Kong, a theme echoed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Friday as she backed the latest changes to the electoral rules.
It is a natural requirement that Hong Kong must be governed by patriots, she said in a statement, adding that the changes will restore law and order.