HONG KONG -- Hong Kong's legislature on Thursday passed a new election law introduced by Beijing in the near-absence of opposition lawmakers, a move that critics describe as a regression of the city's democracy.
Forty lawmakers voted in favor of the so-called Improving Electoral System (Consolidated Amendments) Bill, while two independent lawmakers voted against it.
The National People's Congress, China's top decision-making body, approved the overhaul in March during its annual parliamentary meeting. Local officials have since repeatedly called for lawmakers to "speed up" the legislative process so the government can start working on upcoming elections.
Under the constitutional changes, the number of publicly elected seats in the Legislative Council will be slashed to 20 -- just 22% of the total number of seats, down from 57% in the last legislative election in 2016. This will be the lowest directly elected proportion since the colonial era. The remaining seats will be assigned to the pro-Beijing Election Committee, as well as industry and social groups.
Candidates also will be required to pass two rounds of screening by national security bodies and the committee, which is controlled by Beijing, to ensure all hopefuls are "sufficiently patriotic" and supportive of national interests, according to the bill.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken slammed the move, calling out the Chinese government for violating its own guarantee of rights for Hong Kongers.
The new measure "severely constrains people in Hong Kong from meaningfully participating in their own governance and having their voices heard," Blinken said in a statement. "Decreasing Hong Kong residents' electoral representation will not foster long-term political and social stability for Hong Kong."
"The United States stands united with our allies and partners in speaking out for the human rights and fundamental freedoms guaranteed to the people in Hong Kong by the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law," the statement said.
Shortly after the bill's passage, Chief Executive Carrie Lam hailed lawmakers for their "tireless" efforts in scrutinizing it and for putting the legislation into place in just two months.
"I am pleased that we have expeditiously completed the task," Lam said in a news release that slammed foreign media and politicians for "misleading claims" about the new electoral system and called the overhaul "timely and necessary."
The release said that "anti-China forces" have "created chaos in the LegCo, paralyzed the operation of the HKSAR [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region] government, and even colluded with external forces to undermine Hong Kong's safety and interests."
"No country or government could turn a blind eye to such dangers," it added.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, Beijing's top office in the city, said the new election rules will "enhance governance efficiency" in the territory. "The law will put Hong Kong back on the right track," its spokesperson said in a statement. "It will mark a new chapter of the 'one country, two systems' framework."
For the second year in a row, Hong Kong police on Thursday banned an annual candlelight vigil to commemorate China's brutal crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 -- an event that had taken place in the city for three decades -- citing coronavirus restrictions on social gatherings.
Hong Kong will hold three important elections in the coming year. The poll for the Election Committee, which will help vet candidates and directly fill seats in the legislature, will be held on Sept. 19.
The Legislative Council election, meanwhile, is scheduled for Dec. 19, after being postponed for more than a year as the government cited concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. The race for the city's chief executive, Hong Kong's top political position, will be held on March 27 next year.
The electoral overhaul has drawn international condemnation from the EU, the U.K. and the U.S. Washington has sanctioned 24 mainland Chinese and Hong Kong officials whom it regards as responsible for the changes, but Beijing has been unmoved by the backlash.
The almost unanimous vote comes after pro-democracy lawmakers resigned en masse last year to protest against Beijing's decision to disqualify four of their colleagues, leaving the legislature without oppositional voices for the remainder of the term.
A total of 47 pro-democracy politicians and activists have been arrested and detained under the national security law for participating in a primary poll last year that prosecutors have said was an attempt to "topple" the government, while many others are also facing protest-related charges and serving jail sentences.
The Democracy Party's chairman, Lo Kin-hei, recently told public broadcaster RTHK that most of its supporters want the party to boycott the upcoming election, but "messengers from Beijing" have urged them to participate.