Hong Kong lawmakers pass election revamp Bill

The Legislative Council approved the creation of a review committee to vet candidates for elected office and ensure they're "patriots." PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong's legislature approved sweeping changes to the city's electoral system ordered by the Chinese leadership, dramatically curtailing the ability of dissenting voices to participate in government.

The Legislative Council voted 40-2 to approve measures Thursday (May 27) creating a review committee to vet candidates for elected office and ensure they're "patriots."

All candidates must also be approved by national security officials in the Hong Kong police force to determine whether they can be trusted to uphold local laws and "respect" the ruling Communist Party.

The Bill's passage marks the culmination of Beijing's efforts to take control of how the former British colony chooses its leaders, giving it a veto over candidates for office following historic and sometimes violent unrest in 2019.

It effectively ends China's only experiment with open elections, a vestige of the democratic system implemented during last years of colonial rule.

On the same day, Hong Kong police banned for a second straight year a pro-democracy group's application to hold an annual candlelight vigil marking China's 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

The decision, which police attributed to measures intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, raised questions about the future of an event that has symbolised peaceful protest in Hong Kong for more than three decades.

Associate Professor Alfred Wu specialises in Hong Kong at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew Public Policy, said the twin milestones illustrate how Hong Kong's political system is "moving much closer to the mainland."

"The Chinese system really emphasises national security, and this is now evident in Hong Kong," Assoc Prof Wu said.

Chinese lawmakers passed a proposal in March to overhaul how the city chooses its chief executive, and give a body dominated by pro-Beijing elites more power to nominate legislators. President Xi Jinping signed the order implementing the changes, which the government defended as necessary to reduce polarisation, curb the influence of "foreign forces" and let authorities focus on improving the economy.

The move sent a clear signal that Beijing has grown intolerant of dissent, said Dr Dongshu Liu, an assistant professor of Chinese politics at City University of Hong Kong.

"Beijing has given up its indirect way of ruling Hong Kong and is now more explicit and direct in controlling it," Dr Liu said.

The measure passed with little debate since Hong Kong's opposition resigned en masse last year to protest Beijing's crackdown, and many former lawmakers have since been jailed pending trial on criminal charges.

Still, more than half of the body's remaining lawmakers rose to speak in favour of the measure, praising China's action to weaken their opponents and dilute their vote.

"Everything is about politics, and everything is about elections," pro-establishment lawmaker Priscilla Leung said during legislative discussions Wednesday. "To ensure that power will not be given to the mutual destruction camp to create chaos in Hong Kong, the central authorities had to intervene."

Other changes to Hong Kong's election system include:

- Reducing the number of directly elected lawmakers to 20 from 35;

- Expanding the number of Legislative Council seats to 90 from 70 and the Election Committee that picks the city's leader by 300 members to 1,500, moves that give Beijing-aligned representatives a bigger role.

The US, the UK, Japan and the European Union have condemned China's efforts to roll back civil liberties in Hong Kong. The Biden administration also extended sanctions first levied by its predecessor on Chinese officials.

Voting to choose representatives for the Election Committee's various sectors is set for Sept 19.

An election for new members of the Legislative Council will be held on Dec 19 after a delay of what would be more than a year, a move officials said was necessary due to the pandemic.

The poll for the first chief executive under the new rules is scheduled for March 27.

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