Beijing proposes changes to HK electoral rules

"We're looking to create a democratic process with Hong Kong characteristics," said National People's Congress vice-chairman Wang Chen. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING/HONG KONG - Chinese lawmakers on Friday (March 5) proposed changes to Hong Kong's electoral commission as well as the way the chief executive and legislators would be elected, and the city's Chief Executive Carrie Lam rallied behind the move.

The vice-chairman of the National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee, Mr Wang Chen, who tabled the proposed changes in Beijing, said the way Hong Kong's leader and its legislators are picked will be overhauled with an emphasis on patriotism.

The Electoral Committee, which is responsible for picking the Chief Executive, will now also be responsible for picking a "large share" of Legislative Council (LegCo) members while being involved in the nomination process of all candidates.

"We're looking to create a democratic process with Hong Kong characteristics," said Mr Wang.

The principle of Hong Kong patriots governing the city is fundamental to national sovereignty, security, development interests, as well as the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong, said Mrs Lam in a statement issued shortly after the proposal was tabled in the NPC.

"As there will be a number of elections in the coming 12 months, there is a pressing need for us to complete the necessary legislative work," added Mrs Lam who was also at the NPC opening

Coming barely a year since a sweeping national security law was implemented in the city on June 30, this is yet another blow to hopes for democracy in Hong Kong.

Beijing has said the proposed changes are in response to the unrest in Hong Kong in recent years after "obvious loopholes and shortcomings in the current electoral system".

In 2019, plans to introduce legislation allowing the extradition of criminals to mainland China met with widespread opposition in the city, which is governed by its own mini-constitution, the Basic Law.

This escalated into mass protests that continued for most of the year until Covid-19 prevented mass gatherings. A national security law introduced last year put a dent in the protest movement.

While activists say the demonstrations were a manifestation of long-simmering anger at the local government, Beijing insists that foreign forces were behind it.

Friday's proposal to change Hong Kong's election rules will be discussed in the coming days and voted on March 11.

Reaction in Hong Kong was mixed.

Legco president Andrew Leung backed the changes, saying they could restore normalcy to Hong Kong by establishing a "peaceful and rational Legco" and minimising any unnecessary disputes.

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But Civic Passion lawmaker Cheng Chung Tai, who is one of two lawmakers outside of the pro-establishment camp who still has his seat, told local media he believed the pro-democracy camp would be wiped out from Legco in future.

Currently only half of the 70 seats in the Legislative Council are directly elected, a proportion which is likely to shrink once the new changes are implemented.

Polls for Hong Kong's lawmaking body were meant to take place on Sept 6 last year but were postponed to Sept 5 this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Local media reported on Friday that the elections would be delayed by another year to September 2022.

While the latest move is likely to change Hong Kong's democratic institutions, Beijing would still be keen to keep the city as somewhere international businesses would feel comfortable remaining, said Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom, author of Vigil: Hong Kong On The Brink.

"The argument Beijing has been making all along, when faced with protests, is that it wants to maintain the status quo and ensure stability, and this is an argument that some locals and some international actors are willing to accept," he said.

"This may be true even now, but it should be clear now to all that Hong Kong's democratic institutions, never fully democratic, are now just a pale shadow of what they were just a year ago. There will still be elections in Hong Kong, but as many are noting on social media, calling them top-down 'selections' would be much more apt."

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