The Chinese government has made official a sweeping overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system. The changes include restrictions on democratic representation in the city that will help Beijing consolidate its grip over the city-state. Since the passing of the national security law last June, the Chinese government has moved cautiously with regard to Hong Kong. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic the world was watching Chinese actions carefully and Beijing believed it best not to rock the boat. Now, the situation has changed enough for further action to be taken.
One major change will affect the Hong Kong legislature. The number of directly-elected representatives is going to be reduced to 20 from 35 while the amount of representatives appointed by Beijing will rise considerably. A vetting system will be installed to screen potential candidates for public office. This will allow Chinese government to select candidates who are loyal to Beijing and making certain pro-democracy voices in the city-state are minimized. These measures, coupled with the national security law passed last year, constitute the largest overhaul of Hong Kong’s government and political infrastructure since the handover in 1997. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, herself a figurehead of the Chinese government, has expressed unabashed support for the overhaul. “I firmly believe that by improving the electoral system and implementing ‘patriots administering Hong Kong’, the excessive politicisation in society and the internal rift that has torn Hong Kong apart can be effectively mitigated,” Lam said yesterday. Later in the day, she said the changes will be submitted to the Legislative Council next month and are expected to be fully approved by the end of May.
Later this week at the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) the government of the People’s Republic of China is expected to present a plan to significantly reform Hong Kong’s electoral system. The few details of the plan which have come to light suggest the plan will bring major changes to Hong Kong politics and place more pressure on pro-democracy activists and politicians in the territory. The plan comes in the midst of an ongoing crackdown on political dissent in Hong Kong. Remarks made last week by senior Chinese official Xia Baolong indicate the plan is a series of systemic changes designed to allow only candidates loyal to Beijing, and hand-selected by the Chinese government, to hold public office in Hong Kong. Even though no specific details were mentioned, the tone of Xia’s remarks seem to suggest changes to how Hong Kong’s legislature is elected at the very least.
Pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong were fast to denounce the planned changes. “It totally destroys any hope for democracy in the future,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, a pro-democracy former member of Hong Kong’s legislature. “The whole concept of Xia Baolong is that the Communist Party rules Hong Kong and only those that support the party can have any role.” Lee is currently on trial for unlawful assembly charges stemming from a protest in the summer of 2019.
With Hong Kong now a major roadblock for Sino-US relations, part of Beijing’s motivation for locking up the political future of the territory is to remove Hong Kong from the gameboard. The national security law, crackdown on pro-democracy activists and now the coming plan are all components of that action. The moment is approaching when Hong Kong will irreversibly enter the mainland’s sphere of influence entirely. The moment that happens, Washington will no longer be able to factor Hong Kong into its future US-China policies and dialogue.