China passes new laws to reshape Hong Kong's legislature

March 30, 2021

HONG KONG — China's government has passed a new law that will drastically restrict the right of Hong Kongers to stand for election and reshape the city's parliament, further entrenching Beijing's power over the supposedly semi-autonomous territory.

In a unanimous and unsurprising decision Tuesday, the standing committee of the National People's Congress endorsed proposed changes to how Hong Kong lawmakers and the city's leader are chosen.

China sharply reduced the number of directly elected seats in Hong Kong's legislature, giving Beijing more control over the Legislative Council's makeup. The standing committee of NPC passed the amendments on the final day of a two-day session, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

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 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.

Officials will also be vetted to ensure the city is governed by "patriots" as part of China's amendments to Hong Kong's Basic Law.

The political opposition in Hong Kong says the changes will keep them out of office. They have advocated for more democratic reforms. The electoral changes in Hong Kong have been widely condemned by Western powers.

Pro-democracy protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong for months in 2019 to demand pro-democracy reforms.

But China has worked to suppress debate in the city, imposing a national security law last summer, which led to the arrests of dozens of pro-democracy activists.

Citing the pretext of the pandemic, the Hong Kong executive last summer postponed for a year the legislative elections that the pro-democracy camp hoped to win for the first time.

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.

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. — Agencies

March 30, 2021
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