HONG KONG (AFP, REUTERS) - Kong's political elite began selecting a powerful committee on Sunday (Sept 19) which will choose the city's next leader and nearly half the legislature under a new "patriots only" system imposed by Beijing.
The financial hub has never been a democracy - the source of years of protests - but a small and vocal opposition was tolerated after the city's 1997 handover to authoritarian China.
Huge and often violent democracy rallies exploded two years ago and Beijing responded with a crackdown and a new political system where only those deemed loyal are allowed to stand for office.
The first poll under that new system - carrying the slogan "Patriots rule Hong Kong" - took place on Sunday as members of the city's ruling classes cast votes for a 1,500-seat Election Committee.
In December, that committee will appoint 40 of the city's 90 legislators - 30 others will be chosen by special interest groups and just 20 will be directly elected. The following year, it will pick Hong Kong's next Beijing-approved leader.
Beijing insists the new political system is more representative and will ensure "anti-China" elements are not allowed into office.
Critics say it leaves no room for the pro-democracy opposition, turning Hong Kong into a mirror of the authoritarian Communist Party-ruled mainland.
"Hong Kongers are completely cut off from electoral operations," Nathan Law, a prominent democracy leader who fled to Britain last year, told Agence France-Presse. "All election runners will become puppet showmen under Beijing's entire control... with no meaningful competition."
Ted Hui, a former lawmaker who moved to Australia, said Hong Kong's political system was now "a rubber-stamp game completely controlled by Beijing". "It's more than a managed democracy. It's an autocracy trying to pretend to be civilised," Hui told AFP.
4,800 voters, 6,000 police
Back in 2016, some 233,000 Hong Kongers were allowed to select the Election Committee.
That figure has now been trimmed to around 4,800 - 0.06 per cent of Hong Kong's 7.5 million population.
Police said 6,000 officers were on standby to ensure there were no protests or disruptions.
When polls closed on Sunday evening, authorities said turnout among the select group of electors was 86 per cent.
"This is an important election although the number of people eligible to join is not large," Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam told reporters, adding the new system would ensure "anti-China troublemakers" would no longer be able to "obstruct" the government.
The vast majority of seats in Sunday's vote were a one-horse race, with just 364 contested. The rest will be installed ex officio or chosen by special interest groups.
As a result, the committee will be even more stacked than previously with reliable pro-Beijing votes, including loyalist lawmakers and members of national bodies as well as representatives from business, professional and religious groups.
Local media reported that people linked to the city's powerful business tycoon families will wield less power than previously. China promised Hong Kong would maintain key liberties and autonomy for 50 years after its handover.
But, in the wake of the 2019 protests, Beijing began transforming the city into something more like the authoritarian mainland. China's leaders were also stung by pro-democracy candidates winning a landslide the same year in district council elections - the city's only bodies predominantly selected by universal suffrage.
On top of the new political system, China has also imposed a sweeping national security law that has criminalised much dissent.
Multiple opposition figures have been jailed, dozens of pro-democracy groups and outlets - including the city's most popular newspaper - have been shuttered and tens of thousands of Hong Kongers have left the city.
Others have been disqualified from public office for their political views. Civil society groups have also been prosecuted and dozens have disbanded.
On Sunday, the Confederation of Trade Unions - the city's largest pro-democracy labour organisation with some 140,000 members - became the latest group to announce it would dissolve next month.
Tycoons out, sons remain
Committee membership for 117 community-level district councillors, dominated by democrats, was scrapped, while more than 500 seats designated for Chinese business, political and grassroots groups were added.
The new electoral list includes community-level organisations such as Modern Mummy Group and Chinese Arts Papercutting Association, Cable TV reported.
Representation from professional subsectors that traditionally had a bigger pro-democracy presence, including legal, education, social welfare, medical and health services, was diluted by the addition of ex-officio members, reducing the number of elected seats.
Twenty-three of the 36 subsectors that are open for contest, totalling about 600 seats, will not see any competition.
About 70 per cent of the nominees did not feature in the last two polls for the committee, which will expand by 300 members to 1,500, Reuters calculations based on the election committee website showed.
Many prominent tycoons, including Hong Kong's richest man Li Ka-shing, will not be on the election committee for the first time, as Beijing seeks to rebalance power from big conglomerates to small businesses.
Three property moguls - Li, 93, of CK Asset Holdings, Lee Shau-kee, also 93, of Henderson Land and Henry Cheng, 74, of New World Development, withdrew from the race, although their sons will retain their seats.