China's parliament is poised this week to pass a draconian new Hong Kong election law that will sharply reduce the proportion of democratically elected legislators and consolidate President Xi Jinping's grip on the territory.
The move will effectively end decades of democratic development in Hong Kong and comes less than a year after the National People’s Congress (NPC) imposed a national security law on the city, under which dozens of pro-democracy activists have been charged with subversion and other crimes against the state punishable by long prison terms.
The NPC began its annual session in Beijing on Friday and will formally unveil the new election law when it concludes on Thursday.
Half of Hong Kong's 70-seat Legislative Council is directly elected by geographic constituencies. The remainder are chosen by industry sectors whose representatives overwhelmingly support Beijing. The formula has helped ensure that pro-democracy candidates, who routinely capture 60 per cent of the popular vote, generally hold no more than 40 per cent of the chamber.
But Chinese officials believe that further safeguards are needed to ensure that only people Beijing regards as “patriots” run Hong Kong’s government, legislature and judiciary after pro-democracy protests and riots rocked the territory in 2019. “The protests went too far,” said one member of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing establishment. “Hong Kong lost China’s trust.”
According to people briefed on the NPC’s deliberations, the new election law will expand the legislature to 90 seats, with as few as 20 per cent chosen through direct elections.
On Sunday, China's foreign minister hit back at international criticism of the new law. "Loyalty to the motherland is a basic political ethic of all public office holders and aspirants anywhere in the world – Hong Kong is no exception," Wang Yi said at an NPC briefing. "How can we expect someone who does not love the motherland to truly love Hong Kong?"
Wang Chen, an NPC vice-chairman, has also confirmed that anyone hoping to run for a legislative seat must be nominated by the overwhelmingly pro-Beijing "election committee" that selects Hong Kong's chief executive. The committee, Wang added, would also elect "a relatively large share" of representatives in the expanded legislature.
"This is going to give Beijing even more control," said Simon Cartledge, author of a book on the territory's political system. "But I can't see what it does to address the governance issue that lies at the heart of Hong Kong's problems – that a non-accountable government struggles to come up with answers to meet Hong Kong's needs."
Under the “one country, two systems” formula designed to guarantee Hong Kong’s autonomy in all matters except for defence and foreign affairs, the Chinese government committed itself to “gradual and orderly progress” towards direct elections for all legislative seats as well as the territory’s chief executive.
Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong chief executive from 2012 to 2017, told local media at the weekend Beijing had decided “enough is enough”, but would still be willing to move towards universal suffrage “eventually” under the new law. “The overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system can set the minds of the central government and all our countrymen at ease,” Mr Leung said.
Hong Kong companies including Swire, the conglomerate that controls Cathay Pacific Airways, are rushing to express their support for the new election law. "The principle of 'patriots governing Hong Kong' is beneficial to the city's future as a world-leading business and financial centre," Swire said in a statement.
Willy Lam, a China politics expert at Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Beijing's year-long crackdown on the territory "reflects Xi's tough line on regions where the Chinese Communist party still does not have total domination".
Speaking to NPC delegates from Inner Mongolia at the weekend, Mr Xi said directives from Beijing to prioritise Mandarin Chinese over Mongolian-language instruction must be obeyed. The directive sparked widespread protests last year by the region's ethnic Mongolian residents.
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021