HONG KONG—China drew the curtain on decades of adversarial politics in Hong Kong as the national legislature approved electoral changes that would put pro-Beijing loyalists firmly in charge of the city and squeeze opposition groups from elected office.
Thursday’s near-unanimous vote by the National People’s Congress paves the way for China’s top lawmaking body to revamp as soon as next month how the former British colony picks its leader and legislators. The overhaul will give Beijing much greater control over local elections that were meant to be partly democratic—thanks to an effective veto against candidates deemed unpatriotic.
Chinese officials say the changes are meant to close legal loopholes that had allowed anti-China forces to impede governance and incite unrest in Hong Kong, which was rocked by mass antigovernment protests in 2019.
“The decision is very clear-cut,” Premier Li Keqiang told reporters after the vote. The aim is to uphold the principle of “patriots governing Hong Kong” and improve Beijing’s “one country, two systems” framework for administering the city, he said.
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Opposition groups in Hong Kong say the change is part of Beijing’s broad efforts to wipe out dissent locally, eroding many of the rights and freedoms that residents were promised for the half-century following Britain’s handover of the territory to Chinese rule in 1997.
“It’s the biggest regression of the system since the handover,” said Lo Kin-hei, chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, who is out on bail after his arrest last year for allegedly participating in an unauthorized assembly in late 2019. “What we’ve seen over the past year is that authorities will do whatever they want, whenever they want, in a way that was unimaginable before.”
The resolution mandates the creation of a commission in Hong Kong that ensures that prospective officeholders conform with criteria laid down in the city’s miniconstitution and national-security legislation.
The resolution calls for expanding Hong Kong’s election committee—originally tasked with choosing the city’s chief executive—to 1,500 seats from 1,200, with its membership no longer including district councilors, a voting bloc that would have been dominated by pro-democracy politicians.
More significantly, the committee will be empowered to select a portion of the local legislature—which would expand to 90 seats from 70—and to participate in the nominating process for candidates. A senior Chinese official said last week the committee would directly fill a “relatively large share” of the seats, but the resolution didn’t give a number.
The committee was once tasked with filling a small portion of legislative seats, but this practice stopped after the 2000 legislative election.
Under existing rules, half the legislature is directly elected by the public, and the other half selected by professional and special interest groups.
The resolution didn’t provide further details on the proposed overhaul, or set a timeline. The new rules would be enacted through amendments to so-called annex documents that supplement the miniconstitution. Hong Kong members of the National People’s Congress say the new rules could be completed as soon as April.
“The electoral reform is meant to ensure dissidents cannot get elected to the Legislative Council,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, who specializes in Hong Kong politics. “This is important because it reverses the direction of political development in Hong Kong set by the British before the end of the colonial era.”
Hong Kong’s government postponed legislative elections scheduled for last September by at least a year, citing the pandemic. The city is set to pick its chief executive next year. The incumbent, Carrie Lam, who has a low public-approval rating, hasn’t said whether she intends to run for a second five-year term.
Beijing has sought to stamp out dissent in Hong Kong since months of antigovernment protests caused citywide chaos in 2019. China’s top legislature imposed a national-security law on the city in June, and authorities have since arrested more than 100 pro-democracy figures, including many opposition groups’ leaders. Authorities have also disqualified pro-democracy politicians from the Hong Kong legislature.
Chinese officials have said they aren’t attempting to curb criticism of the government.
“We are not speaking about creating a monolithic government…we understand that Hong Kong is a plural society with a blend of Chinese and Western culture,” said Song Ru’an, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s deputy commissioner in the territory, at a Tuesday briefing.
Even so, “when we talk about patriotism, we are not talking about the abstraction of loving a cultural or historical China, but rather loving the currently existing People’s Republic of China under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party,” Mr. Song said.
The vote on the resolution, coming on the final day of a weeklong session in Beijing of the National People’s Congress, was 2,895 in favor, none against, and one member abstaining.
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