China's parliament to discuss Hong Kong electoral reform

Supporters of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong hold flashlights as a prison van carrying activists charged under the national security law leaves West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court on March 4, 2021.
Supporters of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong hold flashlights as a prison van carrying activists charged under the national security law leaves West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court on March 4, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (AFP) - China's top legislature will discuss electoral reform in Hong Kong when it meets this week, state media said on Thursday (March 4), as speculation grows that Beijing will use the event to further tighten control over the financial hub.

China has ushered in a sweeping crackdown against critics in Hong Kong after huge and often violent pro-democracy protests rocked the financial hub in 2019.

As thousands of delegates prepare for China's National People's Congress (NPC) to open on Friday, official news agency Xinhua said the attendees would deliberate a draft decision on "improving the electoral system of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region".

The territory dominated headlines during last year's NPC session when delegates endorsed a tough security law designed to stamp out dissent in the semi-autonomous trading hub.

The publication came as dozens of Hong Kong dissidents charged with subversion - in the broadest use yet of the new security legislation - were sent to jail after a judge denied bail.

Chinese state media has run editorials in recent weeks saying "electoral loopholes" will be plugged, while officials have said only "staunch patriots" - those loyal to the ruling Communist Party - should be involved in governing Hong Kong.

The exact shape of any changes is unclear, but they could include removing some seats from local-level district councils.

Hong Kong has never been a democracy - something that has fuelled protests and resentment in the territory towards Beijing.

But the city maintained a veneer of choice that allowed a small and vocal opposition to flourish at certain local elections.

In recent years however authorities have ramped up the disqualification of politicians either sitting in the city's semi-elected legislature or standing as candidates, based on their political views.

The city's leader - the chief executive - is chosen by a 1,200-member committee that is deliberately stacked with Beijing loyalists.

And Hong Kong's 70-seat legislature is designed to return a government majority and only half of the seats are chosen by popular vote.

Despite this opposition candidates scored a landslide win in district council elections in late 2019, in a clear popular rebuke to Beijing.

'State of the nation'

The NPC's roughly 3,000 members will fill Beijing's cavernous Great Hall of the People for a week of meetings choreographed to tout the achievements and power of the party.

It is also an important occasion for the party to lay out priorities, economic expectations, and foreign policy for the coming year.

The centrepiece is the annual report by Premier Li Keqiang - China's equivalent of a "state of the nation" address - expected on Friday and in which an economic growth target for the year is traditionally announced.

The NPC comes as dozens of the Hong Kong dissidents charged with subversion under the new security law face months in jail as prosecutors prepare for a mass trial.

Under the "one country, two systems" model agreed before the city's return from Britain to China, Hong Kong is supposed to be guaranteed certain liberties until 2047 that are denied to those on the mainland.

Western nations and critics have accused Beijing of using its crackdown to shred the freedoms that were promised under the setup.

Hong Kong has also been removed from an annual index of the world's freest economies because the think-tank that compiles the league table said the city was now directly controlled by Beijing.