Thursday’s near-unanimous vote by the National People’s Congress paves the way for China’s top lawmaking body to revamp as soon as next month how the former British colony picks its leader and legislators. The overhaul will give Beijing much greater control over local elections that were meant to be partly democratic—thanks to an effective veto against candidates deemed unpatriotic.
Chinese officials say the changes are meant to close legal loopholes that had allowed anti-China forces to impede governance and incite unrest in Hong Kong, which was rocked by mass antigovernment protests in 2019.
“The decision is very clear-cut,” Premier Li Keqiang told reporters after the vote. The aim is to uphold the principle of “patriots governing Hong Kong” and improve Beijing’s “one country, two systems” framework for administering the city, he said.
Opposition groups in Hong Kong say the change is part of Beijing’s broad efforts to wipe out dissent locally, eroding many of the rights and freedoms that residents were promised for the half-century following Britain’s handover of the territory to Chinese rule in 1997.
“It’s the biggest regression of the system since the handover,” said Lo Kin-hei, chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, who is out on bail after his arrest last year for allegedly participating in an unauthorized assembly in late 2019. “What we’ve seen over the past year is that authorities will do whatever they want, whenever they want, in a way that was unimaginable before.”
Some foreign governments, mainly Western, criticized China for allegedly reneging on pledges to preserve Hong Kong’s system of self-governance until 2047 and eventually allow universal suffrage in the territory. “The United States condemns the PRC’s continuing assault on democratic institutions in Hong Kong,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. “These actions deny Hong Kongers a voice in their own governance.”
U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab criticized the resolution as Beijing’s latest effort to “hollow out the space for democratic debate in Hong Kong.” The European Union said it would consider taking unspecified measures in response to a move that would impact “democratic accountability and political pluralism in Hong Kong.” Japan, meanwhile, expressed “grave concern” and urged China to allow fair elections in the territory.
Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, dismissed the criticism, telling reporters on Friday that electoral reforms in the territory are China’s internal affairs and interference from abroad wouldn’t be tolerated. He also accused the U.S. of hypocrisy in trying to meddle in Hong Kong’s elections after enduring its own electoral turmoil in recent months.
Beijing remains committed to allowing universal suffrage in Hong Kong, though only patriots are allowed to govern, Mr. Zhang said.
Confidence among some foreign businesses in Hong Kong has been shaken during the turmoil, with executives voicing concern over Beijing’s tightening control and some firms deciding to relocate staff to other regional hubs such as Singapore. Other companies, many of whom are reliant on the mainland market or Hong Kong’s role as a finance hub, have been more sanguine about prospects following China’s efforts to restore social stability.
The resolution mandates the creation of a commission in Hong Kong that ensures that prospective officeholders conform with criteria laid down in the city’s miniconstitution and national-security legislation.
The resolution calls for expanding Hong Kong’s election committee—originally tasked with choosing the city’s chief executive—to 1,500 seats from 1,200. Its specifications on membership of the revamped committee didn’t mention district councilors, a voting bloc that was poised to be dominated by pro-democracy politicians.
More significantly, the committee will be empowered to select a portion of the local legislature—which would expand to 90 seats from 70—and to participate in the nominating process for candidates. A senior Chinese official said last week the committee would directly fill a “relatively large share” of the seats, but the resolution didn’t give a number.
The committee was once tasked with filling a small portion of legislative seats, but this practice stopped after the 2000 legislative election.
Under existing rules, half the legislature is directly elected by the public, and the other half selected by professional and special interest groups. These two methods will continue to be used in deciding membership of the expanded legislature, though the resolution didn’t specify how many seats would be chosen in these ways.
The resolution didn’t provide further details on the proposed overhaul, or set a timeline. The new rules would be enacted through amendments to so-called annex documents that supplement the miniconstitution. Hong Kong members of the National People’s Congress say the new rules could be completed as soon as April.
“The electoral reform is meant to ensure dissidents cannot get elected to the Legislative Council,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, who specializes in Hong Kong politics. “This is important because it reverses the direction of political development in Hong Kong set by the British before the end of the colonial era.”
Hong Kong’s government postponed legislative elections scheduled for last September by at least a year, citing the pandemic. The city is set to pick its chief executive next year. The incumbent, Carrie Lam, who has a low public-approval rating, hasn’t said whether she intends to run for a second five-year term.
Beijing has sought to stamp out dissent in Hong Kong since months of antigovernment protests caused citywide chaos in 2019. China’s top legislature imposed a national-security law on the city in June, and authorities have since arrested more than 100 pro-democracy figures, including many opposition groups’ leaders. Authorities have also disqualified pro-democracy politicians from the Hong Kong legislature.
Chinese officials have said they aren’t attempting to curb criticism of the government.
“We are not speaking about creating a monolithic government…we understand that Hong Kong is a plural society with a blend of Chinese and Western culture,” said Song Ru’an, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s deputy commissioner in the territory, at a Tuesday briefing.
Even so, “when we talk about patriotism, we are not talking about the abstraction of loving a cultural or historical China, but rather loving the currently existing People’s Republic of China under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party,” Mr. Song said.
The vote on the resolution, coming on the final day of a weeklong session in Beijing of the National People’s Congress, was 2,895 in favor, none against, and one member abstaining.
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.