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China slashes number of elected seats in Hong Kong legislature

Hopefuls will be vetted by security officials to exclude 'unpatriotic' elements

Hong Kong's government is seeking public support for the overhaul of the special administrative region's parliamentary system by the National People's Congress in Beijing.     © Getty Images

HONG KONG -- Publicly elected representatives will hold just over one-fifth of seats in Hong Kong's next legislature, down from a majority, under constitutional changes adopted in Beijing on Tuesday.

Candidates will also be required to pass two rounds of screening with two national security bodies and a Beijing-controlled committee all vetting hopefuls for patriotism and support for national security before they can face voters.

"The new changes will ensure only patriots can rule Hong Kong and prevent troublemakers from entering the Legislative Council through elections," said Tam Yiu-chung, the sole Hong Kong representative on China's National People's Congress Standing Committee, which unanimously approved the overhaul of the special administrative region's voting system.

Hong Kong's Committee for Safeguarding National Security was established last July after the NPC adopted a new national security law for Hong Kong.  

The committee's members include Hong Kong's chief executive and senior officials. The director of Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong serves officially as an adviser. The city's police department also set up a new national security unit in July.

Speaking on YouTube -- a platform blocked in mainland China -- after the standing committee's 167-0 vote, Tam described the screening system as "a good arrangement because the police and the security committee are familiar with the national security law."

In Hong Kong's last legislative election in 2016, 40 of 70 seats were filled by popular vote --  and most of those elected were opposition candidates. Under the new system, only 20 legislators can be elected by the public.

Hong Kong's election committee, which until now has been empowered only to formally elect the city's chief executive, will screen all legislative candidates as well as directly fill 40 seats in the next assembly as part of an expansion to 90 seats. The remaining 30 seats will still be assigned to representatives of industry and social groups, with two allocated to representatives of Chinese companies for the first time.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday defended the involvement of national security officers in the new candidate screening process. "You need to build up that expertise, how to find the facts," she said. "It is not something that you and I can do." 

The authorities last year kicked out four moderate opposition lawmakers, touching off the resignation of the rest of the pro-democracy bloc. Dozens of other former legislators and candidates face subversion charges under the national security law for holding a primary vote. 

Lam said at a news conference that pro-democracy politicians will still be able to run -- providing they clear the new patriotism bars. 

"For people who hold different political beliefs, who are more inclined towards more democracy, or who are more conservative, who belong to the left or belong to the right, as long as they meet this very fundamental and basic requirement, I don't see why they could not run for election."

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam insisted Tuesday that pro-democracy politicians can still run for office following Beijing's changes to the city's electoral system.    © AP

But it is unclear whether they will actually run for election since many are excluded under the government's election rules.

"Even if you insist [on running], you may be barred from standing," said Emily Lau, a former lawmaker who chaired the Democracy Party. "And then, even if you did get in, you may be disqualified at any time if they regard you as unpatriotic. So this whole system is really quite dreadful."

"I think that true opposition voices will be annihilated. They will disappear from the electoral scene," said Lau. "We don't just take part for the sake of taking part. We take part because it is something meaningful. But if that is not going to be the case, why do you want to take part?"

To tighten oversight of the election committee itself, the body will expand from 1,200 members to 1,500. The city's delegates to the NPC and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference will fill most of the new seats.

All 117 seats on the committee previously reserved for elected neighborhood-level district councilors will be scrapped. That follows the landslide victory of pro-democracy politicians in district council elections in 2019.

To quality as a candidate for chief executive or for the legislature, a hopeful will have to receive nominations from five separate sectors in the election committee, including business, professionals, labor and religious groups, incumbent lawmakers and delegates to national bodies.

Andrew Leung, president of the Legislative Council, said on Tuesday that the legislature elections will be postponed a second time to December to allow time for implementing changes to the legal framework. The polls, originally scheduled for September 2020, had already been pushed back a year due to the COVID-19  pandemic.

Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong described the new election rules along with the national security law as a powerful "combined punch" to ensure Hong Kong's stability and prosperity and to uphold the "one country, two systems" framework under which China took back control from the U.K. in 1997.

"The approval marks the structural protection which can ensure patriots will administer Hong Kong... showing that a democratic system that suits Hong Kong has entered a new phase of development," it said in a statement.

The NPC adopted a framework law on overhauling Hong Kong's elections at its annual parliamentary session earlier this month. The sweeping changes have drawn condemnation from the the European Union, the U.K. and the U.S.

Following the NPC vote, Washington sanctioned 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials, including Tam, whom it regards as responsible for the new election law.

According to the Basic Law, the special administrative region's de facto constitution, the "ultimate aim" for Hong Kong is to achieve universal suffrage in a "gradual and orderly manner" in accordance with democratic values and processes.

Additional reporting by Stella Wong

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