Elections for Hong Kong’s legislature will likely be deferred for a second year to September 2022 as China plans a major overhaul of the city’s electoral system, a severe blow to remaining hopes of democracy in the global financial hub.
The delay, which the South China Morning Post and other local media reported on Friday, citing unnamed sources, would be in line with a new effort by Beijing to ensure “patriots” are in charge of all public institutions in the former British colony.
The National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-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 electoral committee that chooses Hong Kong’s leader and give it powers to pick many of the city’s legislators as well.
The changes follow mass anti-government protests in 2019 and a subsequent crackdown that has left most high-profile pro-democracy politicians and activists either in jail or in exile, along with the imposition of a sweeping national security law.
Still, Beijing is keen to eliminate any possibility of the opposition affecting the outcome of elections in Hong Kong, whose return to Chinese rule came with a promise of a high degree of autonomy.
Hong Kong Secretary for Mainland and Constitutional Affairs Erick Tsang has defined patriotism as “holistic love” for China, including the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.
Riding high on the back of the 2019 protests, the democratic camp had some slim hopes of winning an unprecedented legislative majority in 2020 elections, which the government postponed, citing the coronavirus.
But with some political parties disbanding and pro-democracy politicians in jail, it is unclear what shape any future opposition will take in Hong Kong and how its message could fit with the patriotic loyalty demanded by the Communist Party.
Beijing had promised universal suffrage as an ultimate goal for Hong Kong in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
“This is more than going backwards, it’s getting close to the opposite extreme, moving further away from universal suffrage,” said Ivan Choy, senior lecturer at Chinese University of Hong Kong’s department of government and public administration, referring to the planned changes.
Local media said the electoral overhaul would include increasing the size of the electoral committee from 1,200 to 1,500, and the city’s legislature from 70 to 90 seats.
Currently half of the 70 seats in the Legislative Council, known as LegCo are directly elected, a proportion which will shrink with the extra seats picked by the electoral committee. The other half represents industries, unions, and professions and is largely stacked with pro-Beijing figures.
The representation of community-level district council officials in both the election committee and LegCo is likely to be scrapped, media said.
District councils are the city’s only fully democratic institution, and almost 90% of the 452 district seats are controlled by the democratic camp after it humiliated the establishment in a 2019 vote. They mostly deal with mundane issues such as bus stops and garbage collection.
Overall, the moves will reduce democratic representation in both LegCo and the election committee, which must convene before Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s five-year term ends in July 2022.
A broader use of patriotic pledges is also expected to enforce loyalty. Such oaths have already been used to disqualify some democratic politicians from LegCo and are likely to be used to oust many of the district councilors.
While critics see the new security law as a tool to crush dissent and curb freedoms, authorities say it was vital to end the 2019 violence and fend off manipulating “foreign forces.”
In a statement on Friday, Hong Kong leader Lam backed the planned changes, saying “it is a natural requirement that Hong Kong must be governed by patriots” and that the changes will “restore law and order.”
(Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Richard Pullin and Gerry Doyle)