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China approves sweeping changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system

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China’s parliament approved on Thursday a draft decision to change Hong Kong’s electoral system, further reducing democratic representation in the city’s institutions and introducing a mechanism to vet and screen politicians’ loyalty to Beijing.

The measures are part of Beijing’s efforts to consolidate its increasingly authoritarian grip over the global financial hub, following the imposition of a sweeping national security law in June, which critics see as a tool to crush dissent.

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Beijing is responding to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019, which it saw as a threat to China’s national security. Since then, most high-profile democratic politicians and activists have been sent to jail or are in self-exile.

The changes virtually eliminate any possibility of the opposition affecting the outcome of elections in the former British colony, whose return to Chinese rule in 1997 came with a promise of a high degree of autonomy.

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The blanket requirement for “patriotism” raises the risk that politicians will start competing over who is more loyal to Beijing, rather than who has the better ideas for how the city should be governed, analysts say.

The measures will alter the size and composition of Hong Kong’s legislature and an electoral committee selecting the chief executive in favour of pro-Beijing figures.

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The committee will also be given powers to select many city legislators. A new mechanism will be set up to vet candidates and screen election winners’ behaviour to make sure only those seen as patriots rule Hong Kong.

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.

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Beijing had promised universal suffrage as an ultimate goal for Hong Kong in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law.

Critics say the changes to the electoral system move Hong Kong towards the opposite direction, leaving the democratic opposition with the most limited space it has ever had since the 1997 handover, if any at all.

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It is not clear what shape any future opposition could take and how its message could comply with loyalty requirements.

(Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Christopher Cushing)

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