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Explainer: What is love? Beijing wants Hong Kong to show unconditional loyalty

© Reuters. In Beijing, people walk past Chinese and Hong Kong flags

By Greg Torode and Marius Zaharia

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Chinese officials have signaled that Beijing is planning major election changes for Hong Kong, possibly as soon as next week when the Chinese parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), opens in Beijing.

WHAT IS BEIJING PLANNING?

Xia Baolong, director of China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Bureau, said the electoral system in the global financial center needs to be changed so that only “patriots” can rule.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said her government will work fully with Beijing to “improve” the political system.

Mainland and Constitutional Secretary Erick Tsang announced a bill calling on council representatives at the community level to take a “patriotic” oath and then clarified what the term means.

“You can’t say you are patriotic, but you don’t love the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership or you don’t respect them – that doesn’t make sense,” Tsang added.

“Patriotism is holistic love.”

WHAT’S THE BIG PICTURE?

Love may be the ideal, but what Beijing really wants is obedience, control, and absolutely predictable choices.

The plans are Beijing’s latest moves to consolidate its authoritarian hold over Hong Kong after the mass protests and violence that rocked the former British colony for much of 2019.

Last June, Beijing passed a comprehensive national security law against Hong Kong through the NPC. Most pro-democracy activists and politicians have been captured or arrested for other reasons.

Some elected lawmakers have been disqualified and the authorities are insincere in demanding their oaths. The opposition then resigned en masse from the Legislative Council, the mini-parliament of Hong Kong.

When district councils and officials swear “patriotic” oaths, they are vulnerable to similar treatment.

Hong Kong’s district councils are the only fully democratic institution, and the pro-democracy camp took nearly 90% of its 452 seats in the 2019 election, humiliating the establishment.

These dynamics indicated a slim chance for Democratic politicians to win an unprecedented majority in parliamentary elections scheduled for September after the coronavirus was delayed by a year.

What could the changes look like?

Gerrymandering looks safe. And probably a lot more.

Since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong institutions have been dominated by pro-Beijing politicians, but the Lam government’s unpopularity has put Beijing’s control at risk.

Half of the city’s 70 legislators are directly elected in “geographic constituencies”, the remainder from “functional” ones representing industries, unions and professions piled with pro-Beijing personalities.

Media said voting cards could be redrawn to match the pro-Beijing camp, with the number of geographic constituencies increased from 5 to 18 to improve the Democratic referendum.

Then a system with one vote and two seats in each constituency would give the second-placed candidate, likely from the pro-Beijing camp, access to the legislature. This comes from polls that show a split between 60% and 40% between Democrats and establishment-promoting sites.

A six-seat constituency of district councils in the legislature – a democratic stronghold – could also be scrapped.

Beijing is also reported to be considering reshaping a panel of 1,200 elite figures that will elect a new leader when Lam’s first five-year term ends in March 2022.

District councils only have about a tenth of the committee’s seats. But the democratic camp’s unprecedented victory in 2019 now presents a rare theoretical opportunity to be kingmakers in close races between pro-Beijing candidates.

WHY IS THE LOYALTY OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY IN CHINESE HONG KONG SO VEXING?

Generations of Chinese families fled to Hong Kong after the Communist Party came to power in 1949, and until recently, Chinese officials remained reluctant in the city.

The Communist Party still has no open or official local presence, but instead operates through proxy and proxy.

The key to Hong Kong’s enduring freedoms, say many of its residents, is a paragraph in its mini constitution, known as the Basic Law, that states:

“The socialist system and socialist politics are not allowed to be practiced in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life will remain unchanged for 50 years.”

The Basic Law reflects the formula “one country, two systems”, which has long guaranteed Hong Kong’s broad freedom of expression, religion and action with its own government, with the exception of foreign and defense policy.

While the city does not have full democracy, universal suffrage is anchored in the Basic Law as a goal. For decades, a thriving civil society contributed to heated debates in lawmakers and elsewhere.

Is there more to come?

Very likely on several fronts.

Beijing officials said the independent judges in Hong Kong must also be patriots and that judicial reforms are necessary.

The contours and timing are uncertain, but diplomats and corporations are closely monitoring this and viewing the independence of the judiciary as the basis for Hong Kong’s international status.

Hong Kong and Beijing officials, who have repeatedly stated that rights and freedoms remain intact, insist that the independence of the judiciary be preserved.

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