HONG KONG -- The democracy movement in Hong Kong faces possible extinction with China expected to unveil wide-ranging changes to the city's election process at the National People's Congress starting Friday, the latest move by Chinese President Xi Jinping to quash dissent in the once-autonomous territory.
Chinese officials have recently spoken on the importance of having "patriots" in charge, fueling speculation that Beijing seeks to lock out critics of the Communist Party from leadership posts here. Critics say the retreat on democracy could drive talent abroad and undermine the city's status as a global financial hub.
Hong Kong operates under a different political system from the mainland under the "one country, two systems" framework, which promises the territory a high level of political and economic autonomy. Its chief executive is chosen by a 1,200-member election committee composed largely of business leaders and other influential figures. Meanwhile, the lawmaking Legislative Council, or LegCo, is made up of 70 members, half of them directly elected via universal suffrage.
Changes that may emerge from the National People's Congress include blocking "unpatriotic" candidates from running. Five "super seats" in the LegCo could be eliminated, as could the 117 District Council seats on the committee that chooses the chief executive, reducing the general public's representation in government.
The result would benefit Beijing loyalists and hurt the pro-democracy camp.
Xi has steadily tightened his grip on Hong Kong through such means as disqualifying progressives from elections and the legislature through local authorities. Activists have been jailed under a sweeping national security law imposed last year after massive pro-democracy protests flared anew in 2019.
"The ultimate aim" is for both the chief executive and all members of the legislature to be chosen "by universal suffrage," according to the Basic Law, Hong Kong's de facto constitution.
Activists here have pushed to make this a reality since the U.K. returned Hong Kong to China in 1997. For a time, the mainland government appeared to accept these efforts, through such steps as increasing the number of directly elected LegCo seats in the 2012 race.
But the expected overhaul would shut the pro-democracy camp -- which won more than 80% of the District Council seats in 2019 local elections -- out of politics.
"The change would destroy the very heart of Hong Kong's democracy," said politics professor Toru Kurata of Japan's Rikkyo University.
Xia Baolong, China's top official on Hong Kong and Macau affairs, said in February that foreign electoral systems cannot be applied wholesale to Hong Kong. Though the goal of universal suffrage is not expected to change on paper, what it means in practice could if political participation is limited to patriots.
"You don't need to love the Communist Party to be considered a patriot, but you cannot challenge the party-led political system," an expert at a Chinese state-affiliated think tank said.
Some in the West have stopped distinguishing between the territory and an increasingly controlling mainland government.
The Washington-based Heritage Foundation dropped Hong Kong and Macao from its Index of Economic Freedom this year. The former had topped the list for more than two decades before Singapore unseated it in 2020.
While both territories offer "more economic freedom than is available to the average Chinese citizen, developments in recent years have demonstrated unambiguously that those policies are ultimately controlled by Beijing," the editors said.
Many Hong Kongers have begun considering moving overseas in search of political freedoms.
Society may temporarily seem to stabilize under the electoral changes, but insecurity will remain deep in people's hearts, said Bruce Lui, a senior lecturer in the Journalism Department at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Beijing's policies will not achieve long-term social stability, Lui said.