HONG KONG - The stage is set not only for "a few principal government officials" and the police to decide who gets to run in elections, but also for Hong Kong's delayed parliamentary polls to be held in about eight months' time, as the city's leader says there is "no time to lose" in amending local legislation.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday (March 30) said at a briefing that a small number of principal officials of the Hong Kong government will make up the new Candidate Eligibility Review Committee - a body that has the power to vet whether potential political candidates are "sufficiently patriotic".
Speaking after Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing signed off on orders to amend Hong Kong's Basic Law or mini-Constitution, Mrs Lam said the review committee is needed as previous returning officers tasked to screen candidates faced threats or were doxxed.
Only candidates who have cleared background checks by the police's national security department and the Committee for Safeguarding National Security can run in any election.
Time is tight with three elections - to pick members of the newly-expanded Election Committee that votes on Hong Kong's leader, the Legislative Council (Legco) and the chief executive - to be held in the coming year, said Mrs Lam.
"Our goal is to introduce the Bill to the Legco by mid-April, so we are only about two weeks from the middle of April," Mrs Lam said, adding that they have to amend "some 20 pieces of main and subsidiary legislation".
She hopes to complete the third reading by end May, move on to a new round of voter registration in June, deal with elections for the Election Committee subsectors in September, hold the Legco elections in December, followed by the chief executive election in March next year.
The authorities must still iron out how to classify associations that are eligible to become members of the Election Committee and who will be in the Candidate Eligibility Review Committee. Geographical constituencies in the Legco elections also have to be delineated.
With the changes, Legco will now have 90 members, of which 20 are directly elected, 30 from functional constituencies representing 28 sectors and 40 members to be picked by the 1,500-strong Election Committee.
All 117 seats of the existing Election Committee held by district councillors, most of whom belong to the pan-democratic or anti-government camp, will be scrapped.
These 117 members will be replaced by "representatives of members of area committees".
The five super district council seats will also be scrapped.
When asked why the government does not make appointments instead of having elections, Mrs Lam pointed out that the ultimate purpose of universal suffrage as listed in the Basic Law is intact and unchanged.
"Not a single word has changed. So what will happen is we will move ahead with the current set of improvements in place. Then in accordance with Hong Kong's actual situation and in an orderly and gradual manner, and meeting the requirements in Article 45, I'm quite certain that we will still have universal suffrage in selecting the chief executive."
Separately, Legco president Andrew Leung said he believes that "the executive and legislative bodies can check and balance each other" after improvements to Hong Kong's electoral system are made.
But Democratic Party's chief Lo Kin Hei said the electoral overhaul has not only cut the proportion of lawmakers to be directly elected by Hong Kongers, but has returned the territory to days before the 1997 handover.
"Those election reforms made in the past 20-odd years are all gone," he said, adding that representation of ground sentiments in Parliament will be further reduced.