China formalizes sweeping Hong Kong electoral shake-up, demands loyalty

China on Tuesday completed a major overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system and drastically curtailed democratic representation in the city as authorities want to ensure that “patriots” rule the global financial center.

The measures are part of Beijing’s efforts to consolidate its increasingly authoritarian hold on its freest territory following the introduction of a national security law in June, which critics see as a tool to quell disagreement.

The changes would reduce the number of directly elected representatives and increase the number of Beijing-approved officials in an extended legislative period, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

As part of the restructuring, a powerful new review committee will oversee candidates for public office and work with national security agencies to ensure they are loyal to Beijing.

Chinese authorities have said the restructuring is aimed at removing “loopholes and deficiencies” that threatened national security during the anti-government unrest in 2019 and ensuring that only “patriots” rule the city.

The measures represent the most significant overhaul of Hong Kong’s political structure since its return to Chinese rule in 1997 and change the size and composition of the legislature and the electoral committee in favor of pro-Beijing personalities.

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam and several city officials, including the Justice Minister, made separate statements praising China’s move.

“I firmly believe that improving the electoral system and implementing ‘patriots who run Hong Kong’ will be effective in alleviating the over-politicization in society and the internal divide that has torn Hong Kong apart,” said Lam.

The number of directly elected representatives will decrease from 35 to 20 and the size of the legislature will increase from the current 70 to 90 seats, Xinhua said, while an election committee responsible for selecting the board chairman will increase from 1,200 to 1,500 members.

The representation of 117 district councils at the community level on the electoral committee would also be removed, and the six district council seats on the legislative council will also be eliminated, according to Xinhua.

District councils are the city’s only fully democratic institution, and after a 2019 vote, nearly 90 percent of the 452 district mandates are controlled by the democratic camp. They mainly deal with basic problems such as public transport links and garbage collection.

The election reorganization was unanimously approved by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress at the head of the Chinese legislature, Xinhua reported.

A woman walks past water-filled barriers with Chinese and Hong Kong flags in the background in front of the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on March 30, 2021.Lam Yik / Reuters

Beijing had promised universal suffrage as the ultimate destination for Hong Kong in its mini constitution, the Basic Law, which also guarantees the city’s far-reaching autonomy not seen on mainland China, including freedom of expression.

Critics say the changes are moving Hong Kong in the opposite direction, leaving the least, if any, space for the democratic opposition that it has had since handover.

Since the introduction of the Security Act, most pro-democracy activists and politicians have been captured or arrested for other reasons.

Some elected lawmakers were disqualified and the authorities insincere in demanding their oaths, while numerous democracy activists were driven into exile.

According to Xinhua, all legislative candidates, including directly elected seats, require nominations from each of the five subsectors of the electoral committee, making it more difficult for pro-democracy candidates to vote.

“They want to increase the safety factor so that the Democrats don’t get very limited seats in the future. If Beijing doesn’t like them, they can’t even vote in the elections,” said Ivan Choy. Lecturer at the Department of Government and Public Administration, Hong Kong University of China.

He expects that the democratic candidates will receive a maximum of one sixth or around 16 seats in Legco after the reforms.

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