China has finalized changes to Hong Kong’s electoral rules, which critics say will tighten its control over the city, the aim of the changes is to ensure that only “patriotic” figures can run for positions of power.
Critics warn it would mean the end of democracy in Hong Kong, keeping any opposition out of the city parliament. The move would mean that any prospective MPs would first be vetted for their loyalty to the mainland. Beijing first approved plans to change the way Hongkong’s election works during the National People’s Congress (NPC) earlier in March. The details are now being hammered out by Beijing’s NPC Standing Committee, before they are added to the annexes of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
The plan is to expand Hong Kong’s parliament, the Legislative Council (LegCo), from 70 to 90 seats, according to reports, but most importantly, it envisages a system where LegCo candidates will be vetted before they can run, thus making it easier to bar any politician deemed critical of the mainland. Currently about half of LegCo’s seats are directly voted for by the public, and some of those seats have gone to pro-democracy figures in the past. The other half is filled by smaller groups representing special interests such as business, banking and trade – sectors which are historically already pro-Beijing.
There’s controversy over whether this would be a change to the Basic Law, which enshrines basic freedoms. It is an agreement struck between Britain and China when Hong Kong was handed back to the mainland in 1997. The changes are written not into the Basic Law itself, but into its annexes, which Beijing has the right to do. While Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing camp says the changes are not changing the constitution, the pro-democracy side insists they do. “Technically, it’s not a change to the Basic Law,” Ian Chong, politics professor at the National University of Singapore, told the BBC. “But in terms of [affecting] the spirit of having competitive elections and moving towards universal suffrage, it would be.”
In November 2020, several opposition lawmakers were disqualified, which led to the entire opposition in LegCo resigning. If a future veto keeps critics out of LegCo, such public embarrassments would be much less likely. Several local elections are coming up during 2021, although it’s not clear yet when the new law would be effective. The handover agreement between Britain and China gave the territory more freedoms than the mainland, supposedly ensuring those freedoms would remain untouched for 50 years until 2047 under a “one country, two systems” principle.
Since then, Beijing has gradually stepped up its influence on Hong Kong. Critics allege that China is violating the agreement but Beijing denies this. After years of pro-democracy protests, fresh demonstrations in 2019 escalated into waves of violence between activists and police – and major gains for the opposition in local elections. In 2020, Beijing then passed a controversial national security law, also adding it to a Basic Law annex, which essentially reduced Hong Kong’s judicial autonomy and made it easier to punish demonstrators. Since then, a string of critics have been arrested under the law, which carries life in prison as a maximum sentence.