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China prepares to carve in stone Hong Kong election overhaul

Beijing seeks to railroad controversial changes into law amid international censure

Hong Kong voters would not be able to pick "unpatriotic" candidates under an amended election law being debated by China.   © Reuters

BEIJING/HONG KONG -- Chinese lawmakers started Monday to finalize Hong Kong election law revisions to bar pro-democracy candidates from running in the once-autonomous territory.

The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress will debate the legislation, with a Hong Kong newspaper reporting that a vote is expected Tuesday -- a departure from the two rounds of debate usually needed.

The NPC decided this month to move forward with revising the election law. Senior Chinese officials later visited Hong Kong to hear feedback from largely pro-Beijing representatives of the public, apparently aiming to give the changes a veneer of legitimacy.

The Standing Committee looks to revise an annex of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, that applies to elections. The changes are expected to win swift approval from Hong Kong's Legislative Council, now virtually monopolized by pro-Beijing lawmakers.

A "qualification review committee" will determine whether a candidate for office is a "patriot." Hong Kong's Election Committee, which chooses the chief executive, will also gain broader powers.

Both bodies are expected to be pro-Beijing. The qualification board will coordinate with China's Ministry of State Security.

The idea is to shut the insufficiently patriotic out of elections. The 70-member Legislative Council is split between 35 directly elected seats and 35 "functional constituency" seats for different sectors of society.

While the latter seats tilt toward Beijing, the Legislative Council has over the years added seats elected through universal suffrage.

A current proposal would expand the council to 90 seats. The Election Committee would have the power to select 40 legislators, and 30 seats would go to the functional constituencies.

This would leave the voting public with just 20 directly elected members, muffling the voice of the people. Pro-democracy groups could have an even harder time fielding candidates, marking a significant retreat on progress toward full democracy.

The revised election law will be the biggest clampdown on democratic forces since the mainland imposed the national security law on Hong Kong last summer. Prominent activists have been detained, and anti-government demonstrations have all but ended.

By changing the election rules, the Chinese leadership seeks to stamp out all anti-Beijing activity by keeping democrats off government bodies.

The NPC Standing Committee is not only slated to approve the overhaul in a single session, but is also taking the unusual step of meeting just a month after its last gathering. It usually meets every other month.

Behind the rush is the desire by Beijing to close the debate as early as possible and not give in to criticisms from the U.S. and Europe.

"Even if Western countries respond by lodging additional sanctions against Chinese officials, the Xi [Jinping] administration is confident the West will stop short of imposing full economic sanctions, which would disadvantage both sides," said Yasuhiro Matsuda, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia at the University of Tokyo.

Just before the two-day meeting through March 19 between top American and Chinese diplomatic officials in Alaska, Washington announced sanctions on 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials over the draft election law.

Beijing did not take this sitting down. "The Chinese people are outraged by this gross interference in China's internal affairs," Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in the heated opening remarks before reporters in Alaska.

The U.S., the U.K. and Canada later joined the European Union in announcing additional sanctions against Chinese officials accused of participating in human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Beijing responded with its own retaliatory measures. The Chinese authorities seem to believe that a lengthy discussion on Hong Kong's election system would only give the West more space to apply pressure.

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