© Reuters. National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing
By Clare Jim and Marius Zaharia
HONG KONG (Reuters) – The Hong Kong legislative elections are expected to be postponed for a second year through September 2022 as Beijing plans a major overhaul of the city’s electoral system, a blow to remaining hopes for democracy in the global financial center.
The delay, reported by the South China Morning Post and other local media outlets on Friday, citing unnamed sources, would be in line with Beijing’s renewed efforts to ensure that “patriots” are in charge of all public institutions in the former British colony .
The National People’s Congress, China’s stamp parliament, will pass the changes at its annual session, which opened on Friday and will last a week.
Senior Chinese lawmaker Wang Chen said China will change the size, composition and formation method of an election committee that will select Hong Kong’s leader and give him the power to elect many of the city’s lawmakers.
The changes follow mass protests against the government in 2019 and a subsequent crackdown that saw most high-profile pro-democracy politicians and activists either in prison or in exile, and the introduction of a comprehensive national security law.
However, Beijing is keen to rule out any possibility of the opposition influencing the outcome of the Hong Kong elections, the return of which to Chinese rule came with a promise of a high degree of autonomy.
Hong Kong Secretary for Mainland and Constitutional Affairs Erick Tsang defined patriotism as “an integral love” for China, including the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.
Due to the 2019 protests, the democratic camp had high hopes of gaining an unprecedented legislative majority in the 2020 elections, which the government had postponed citing the coronavirus.
However, with some political parties disbanding and pro-democracy politicians in jail, it is unclear what a future opposition in Hong Kong will look like and how its message might fit in with the patriotic loyalty demanded by the Communist Party.
Beijing had promised universal suffrage as the primary goal for Hong Kong in its mini constitution, the Basic Law.
“This is more than a step backwards, it is approaching the opposite extreme and further moving away from universal suffrage,” said Ivan Choy, professor at the Department of Government and Public Administration at the Hong Kong University of China, referring to the proposed changes.
Local media said the election overhaul would include increasing the election committee from 1,200 to 1,500 and the city legislature from 70 to 90 seats.
Currently half of the 70 seats on the Legislative Council, known as LegCo, are directly elected, a proportion that will shrink with the additional seats on the Electoral Committee. The other half represents industries, unions and professions and consists largely of pro-Beijing numbers.
The representation of district council officials at the community level in both the electoral committee and LegCo is likely to be scrapped, the media said.
District councils are the city’s only fully democratic institution, and nearly 90% of the 452 district seats are controlled by the democratic camp after it humiliated the establishment in a 2019 vote. They mainly deal with everyday issues like bus stops and garbage collection.
Overall, the moves will reduce democratic representation in both LegCo and the electoral committee that must be convened before Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s five-year term ends in July 2022.
A wider use of patriotic pledges is also likely to win over loyalty. Such oaths have already been used to expel some Democratic politicians from LegCo and are likely used to oust many of the district councils.
While critics see the new security law as a tool to suppress dissent and restrict freedoms, authorities say it is important to end the violence of 2019 and fend off the manipulation of “foreign forces”.
A Hong Kong government spokesman supported the prospect of election changes, saying that only through “patriots ruling Hong Kong” can central government’s overall responsibility be implemented to ensure stability.