China moves to overhaul Hong Kong politics, squeezing democratic opposition

Pro-democracy activists hold placards of Chinese President Xi Jinping with slogans saying

China's rubber-stamp parliament voted today for changes to Hong Kong's electoral system including powers to veto candidates, as Beijing moves to establish a "patriotic" government after huge pro-democracy rallies in the city.

The statement comes as a major diplomatic row has worsened between London and Beijing, initiated by China introducing a National Security Law for Hong Kong, which came into force on 30 June 2020, and exacerbated by electoral reforms in late February aimed at strengthening Beijing's control in the special administrative region.

She said that her government would "like to pledge our staunch support for and honest gratitude to the passage of the Decision on improving the electoral system".

Shortly after the vote on the electoral system, the state-run Xinhua News Agency revealed details of the overhaul, which will allow an election committee - now responsible for choosing Hong Kong's leader and dominated by local pro-Beijing figures - to nominate legislative candidates and appoint its own members to the city's Legislative Council.

The measure adds to a crackdown against a protest movement in Hong Kong calling for greater democracy.

Led by Indian American Congressman Ami Bera, a bipartisan group of influential lawmakers on Monday expressed concern over changes sought to be imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong's electoral system. A total of 2,895 delegates voted in favor of the bill, while no one voted against it.

The Legislative Council will also swell from 70 seats to 90.

It follows the imposition of a controversial national security law in June previous year which critics labelled a tool to crackdown on dissent after a wave of pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab leaving talks with Estonia's President in Tallinn on March 11
Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab leaving talks with Estonia's President in Tallinn on March 11 Credit RAIGO PAJULA /AFP

The election committee is responsible for choosing Hong Kong's Chief Executive and numerous members of the legislative council (LegCo).

"All representatives highly agreed" to the changes "to safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests and to maintain Hong Kong's constitutional order", said Li Zhanshu, chairman of the NPC's governing Standing Committee.

Beijing's central government has increasingly tightened its grip over the former British colony since citywide anti-government protests broke out in 2019.

The planned electoral changes have drawn global condemnation from the US, the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Although the exact shape of the latest changes is unclear in China's opaque political system, the vote clears the path towards a "qualification vetting system" for the electoral process in Hong Kong.

"Over the last 23 years, we clearly didn't do a good job to show to the central government that these so-called political reforms are actually helping "One Country, Two Systems", Chan told AFP.

Yang pointed out that the allegations that vilify the central government's efforts to improve the electoral system of the HKSAR and predict doom and gloom for Hong Kong are nothing but alarmist rumors, which run counter to the intention of the central government's decision and Hong Kong people's will. "But of course, Hong Kong still has a well-established civil society, even though they have to be extremely cautious because they may be detained or arrested for speaking out against the government". In the last Legislative Council election in 2016, 40 of 70 seats were filled through a public vote.