HONG KONG - The writing was on the wall for sweeping changes to Hong Kong's electoral system, with Beijing moving to tighten legal loopholes before the next chief executive race in 2022 to ensure only patriots govern the territory.
Political watchers said that the clearest sign came on Monday (Feb 22) when the senior Beijing official handling Hong Kong and Macau affairs laid the ground rules for who can be office holders, weeks after reforms to the system were raised.
Mr Xia Baolong, chief of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office had told a Beijing forum on Monday that the city should improve the "one country, two systems" principle by reforming Hong Kong's electoral system.
Under the principle, Hong Kong was promised semi-autonomy until 2047 and a measure of political freedom.
"There are many reasons why the anti-China chaos in Hong Kong is able to make waves and become successful in Hong Kong under 'one country, two systems'. One of the key reasons is that the principle of 'patriots ruling Hong Kong' has not been fully implemented," said the vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) National Committee, in reference to the months of protests in 2019.
Patriots, he said, must safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests; respect and maintain the fundamental system of the country and the constitutional order of the special administrative region; as well as maintain the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong.
And those who hold important positions and powers in Hong Kong "must be staunch patriots", he noted, saying this is "an inevitable requirement" and fundamental principle of Hong Kong's return to China.
Associate Professor Alfred Wu of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy thinks Beijing may come up with a system of its own for Hong Kong.
"Previously, there was some unhappiness in Hong Kong with how the Chief Executive is chosen, but now it will worsen and become more in the style of Beijing. Elections will no longer be like before," he said.
Hong Kong's chief executive election is held every five years and only members of a select 1,200-strong Election Committee can vote for the leader.
Members of the committee include leaders of various interest groups including Hong Kong deputies to the National People's Congress, business tycoons and members of the Legislative Council.
To run as a candidate, one must have the support of at least 150 members.
Local media reports in recent weeks cited sources as saying the Chinese congress would abolish 117 out of 1,200 places on the Election Committee. These seats are held by district councillors following a landslide victory in 2019 by the pro-democracy camp.
Currently, 452 district councillors vote among themselves to fill the 117 seats in the Election Committee. In the 2019 district council election, Hong Kong's democrats gained control of 17 out of the city's 18 district councils, winning 392 seats.
There were also reports in January that Beijing is considering barring British National (Overseas) (BNO) passport holders from running for public office or even voting, in retaliation against Britain's visa scheme for Hong Kongers with BNO status.
"Many district councillors will likely soon be disqualified after the Two Sessions in early March. I'm of the view that Beijing will come up with an electoral system of their own for Hong Kong," said Prof Wu, referring to China's annual parliamentary meetings.
A local political observer who declined to be named said the extensive definition of patriots listed by Mr Xia is a sign that "any critique of Hong Kong and Chinese governments can mean disqualification".
This in turn means more pan-democrats will be disqualified from running or joining future electoral races, including those at the local levels such as the district council, he said.
"Mr Xia insisted that only patriots should be allowed to bear the major posts, not only at the executive and legislative branches but also at the judiciary level. The pressure on the judges will escalate as evident, by my understanding, in the national security law that judges can also be disqualified in case they're regarded by Beijing as having violated some fundamental principles," the long-time Hong Kong political watcher added.
Mr Xia also stressed that Hong Kong's electoral system must be improved under the leadership of the central government and must be in accordance with the Constitution, the Basic Law and the actual situation in Hong Kong.
"Hong Kong's election system must not simply copy or apply foreign election systems," he said.
Mr Xia said more consideration should be given to how to improve the relationship between the executive and the legislature, as well as build consensus in order to develop the economy and improve peoples' livelihood.