HONG KONG -- All members of Hong Kong's outgoing legislature will retain their seats for "not less than" another year, according to a decision Tuesday by China's top lawmaking body.
The decision follows the announcement on July 31 by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam that legislative elections scheduled for Sept. 6 would be delayed until Sept. 5, 2021 in view of the coronavirus outbreak reaching new heights in the city.
A day before Lam's announcement, election officials had disqualified four incumbent legislators as well as Joshua Wong and seven other hopefuls from the polls for expressing views judged to be in conflict with their obligation to support the Basic Law, the city's constitution.
Pro-government politicians have since debated whether the four incumbents, elected in 2016, should be allowed to keep their seats if the legislature's term was extended.
"The National People's Congress Standing Committee has made this principled decision to enable the continuous smooth operation of the legislature and ensure the effective administration of the government," Andrew Leung, president of Hong Kong's Legislative Council, told reporters. "I hope members of the public would not over-interpret this goodwill."
State news agency Xinhua said that the standing committee, which serves as China's legislative body for most of the year, approved the decision unanimously
"The Legislative Council is an important body in Hong Kong's political system," Xinhua's report said. "In order for the Hong Kong government and society to perform their normal functions, the extension is appropriate and necessary."
The committee's resolution did not specifically reference the Sept. 5, 2021 election date Lam announced nor discuss what would happen with the four vacant seats in the 70-member Legislative Council. Leung said those details would be handled locally.
Opposition parties, which had hoped to win their first majority in the scheduled polls, have attacked the postponement as a ploy to foil their plans. The U.S., U.K. and other allies have attacked the delay as well, with Washington calling it a "regrettable action that confirms Beijing has no intention of upholding the commitments it made to the Hong Kong people."
Lam, however, expressed "heartfelt gratitude" to the NPC Standing Committee, saying its approval "demonstrates once again the care and support of the central government."
The standing committee is empowered by Hong Kong's Basic Law to issue interpretive rulings. The Basic Law sets terms for Hong Kong's legislature at four years.