HONG KONG -- China's top decision-making body passed a resolution on Thursday to overhaul Hong Kong's electoral system, moving forward with a dramatic plan that is expected to empower a Beijing-controlled committee to vet candidates for the city's legislature and effectively remove opposition voices.
Touted by Chinese officials as an "improved democratic electoral system with Hong Kong characteristics," the proposal was endorsed almost unanimously by the rubber-stamp National People's Congress in Beijing on the final day of its annual session. A total of 2,895 delegates voted in favor of the bill, while no one voted against it. One delegate abstained.
Chinese lawmakers broke out into applause for more than a minute after voting through the draft decision -- the longest ovation among all the bills approved on Thursday -- reflecting their overwhelming support for election reform. Although the NPC has never vetoed a proposal, a separate bill on Thursday on a work report by the Supreme People's Court, in contrast, had 65 negative votes and 31 abstentions.
Shortly after the vote on the electoral system, the state-run Xinhua News Agency revealed details of the overhaul, which will allow an election committee -- currently responsible for choosing Hong Kong's leader and dominated by local pro-Beijing figures -- to nominate legislative candidates and appoint its own members to the city's Legislative Council.
Delegates of the NPC and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference -- the country's top advisory body -- will also hold an additional 300 seats in the election committee, which will expand from the current 1,200 members to 1,500.
The Legislative Council will also swell from 70 seats to 90. Meanwhile, a vetting mechanism will be set up to ensure the city's lawmaking body is run by what the government describes as "patriots."
In a news conference following the vote, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said the principle of "patriots governing Hong Kong" is clear and the central government will ensure the "accurate and comprehensive" implementation of the "one country, two systems" framework.
When Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong last year, the full text was not made public until the same day the bill took effect.
Beijing's central government has increasingly tightened its grip over the former British colony since citywide anti-government protests broke out in 2019. Dozens of the city's most-prominent pro-democracy figures last month were charged with subversion under the security law and have since been detained.
In a meeting with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Sunday, Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng -- also the top official responsible for Hong Kong affairs -- said the election overhaul is necessary to "plug the loophole" in the current "one country, two systems" model and safeguard national security.
"I strongly support and warmly welcome the passage" of the electoral reform, Lam said in a statement after the resolution was approved, adding that the new election system will ensure Hong Kong's long-term stability and prosperity.
"It is natural and essential to require people vested with governing powers to be patriotic, which is also part and parcel of basic political ethics and a principle that applies everywhere in the world."
The planned electoral changes have drawn international condemnation from the U.S., the U.K. and the European Union. The U.S. State Department described the plan as a "direct attack" on Hong Kong's autonomy and democratic process, while the EU said the overhaul would have "far-reaching negative consequences for democratic principles."
Bernard Chan, who heads Lam's de facto cabinet, conceded earlier this week that the changes to Hong Kong's electoral system will wipe out the territory's democracy development since the 1997 handover to China from the U.K.
"It's a pity that we today have probably gone back to where we were in the early days after the handover," Chan told public broadcaster RTHK. Still, he said the changes will "give confidence to the central government" so that the "one country, two systems" framework can carry on.
According to the Basic Law, the city's constitution, the "ultimate aim" for Hong Kong was to achieve universal suffrage in a "gradual and orderly manner" in accordance with democratic values and processes.
Until now, residents in Hong Kong have been free to contest polls on their own. In the last Legislative Council election in 2016, 40 of 70 seats were filled through a public vote.
Since then, incumbents and candidates seeking seats in the next Legislative Council session have been disqualified by the government, which ultimately led to the mass resignation of pro-democracy lawmakers last November. That left the legislature without an opposition for the remainder of its extended term.
The next election was originally scheduled for last September but was pushed back a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
On Monday, Lam suggested that the vote could be postponed a second time due to the need to first complete the electoral overhaul. She also ruled out a public consultation, as usually required for major constitutional changes, on the overhaul due to its "urgency."