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Hong Kong's 'patriotic' electors take seats as public voice fades

Overhaul ensures pro-Beijing leadership; opposition vows to play role on sidelines

Changes to Hong Kong's system for choosing its chief executive and lawmakers have further sidelined opposition forces.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- Fifteen hundred Hong Kong "patriots" will take their seats on Friday in a revamped Election Committee responsible for deciding the city's leader and selecting about half its lawmakers -- a development seen as the latest step to tighten the Chinese government's control and stifle any opposition.

Fresh faces from Beijing-friendly organizations, many unheard of, and representatives of national bodies will join the Election Committee following a dramatic overhaul in March. The changes drew international condemnation, with Western governments saying they undermine democratic elements in Hong Kong's electoral system amid a relentless crackdown that has put dozens of lawmakers and pro-democracy activists in jail or driven them into exile while civic organizations disband.

The Election Committee is responsible for selecting the city's chief executive next year and, under the new system, will have the power to nominate candidates for the 90-member Legislative Council and directly elect 40 members in December -- reducing the role of voters.

"It is definitely a reverse trend," said former legislator Nathan Law, now in exile. "It is obvious that the path that the Hong Kong political system is walking is going backward, going toward a much more authoritarian direction. There is definitely much less respect for the people."

The Hong Kong government has repeatedly said the electoral changes -- and the national security law imposed last year -- have restored stability and put the city "back on the right track." Pro-Beijing politicians say the remodeling allows the central government's views and opinions to be better heard.

"If your heart is constantly against [the central government], then you are unable to complete many things, everything drags on, and that's the issue we have to solve," Hong Kong's top delegate to the National People's Congress Standing Committee, Tam Yiu-chung, told Nikkei Asia. "The election overhaul is able to solve this problem."

He added: "The people who were voted onto the Election Committee are patriots and want to do the good governance. We need people who understand the country."

Structural changes to the Election Committee include scrapping district council representatives that included many opposition members, and adding a new subsector for Hong Kong representatives of Chinese political bodies. A new position at the helm is reserved for those already holding a national leadership role. Critics say all this takes Hong Kong further away from late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's promise of "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong" and the "one country, two systems" formula.

Previously, the Election Committee's original 1,200 seats were dominated by electors willing to do Beijing's bidding across four sectors that included industrial, financial and religious groups, prominent tycoons, and members of the Legislative Council and local district councils. But in 2019, at the height of the city's anti-government protests, the pro-democracy bloc won a landslide in district council elections, securing 117 seats on the committee and possibly tilting the balance of power.

Analysts say Beijing felt compelled to ensure only its top choice could be voted in as chief executive, only about nine months after the draconian national security law was imposed, punishing what is broadly defined as subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign collusion with up to life imprisonment.

On March 11 of this year, China's top governing body, the National People's Congress, passed a decision to plug "loopholes and deficiencies" in Hong Kong's electoral system that have allowed "anti-China and anti-communists" to enter the governing system. The measure passed with 2,895 votes in favor and one abstention.

By the end of the month, Hong Kong had passed constitutional changes that would require candidates for all elections to be patriotic and supportive of national interests.

"Candidates are there to accept the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party as a leader of China and Hong Kong. You have to play by the rules and the constitution, and the Basic Law," the city's constitution, said Lau Siu-kai, vice president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao studies, a think tank.

With the addition of 300 seats, the changes have also reduced the once-substantial clout of Hong Kong's tycoons, who effectively controlled nearly a quarter of the seats. This year, household names like Li Ka-shing, Henry Cheng Kar-shun and Lee Shau-kee are absent.

In addition, a powerful all-new vetting committee has been formed to review and approve the eligibility of candidates wishing to run for the Election Committee, chief executive or Legislative Council, making it even easier to bar anyone critical of Beijing.

The seven-member vetting group, led by the city's Chief Secretary John Lee, will determine whether a candidate is a steadfast "patriot" and review their conduct and behavior before allowing them to run, Lee told Chinese state media Global Times. Fifty-five district councilors out of more than 200 have been disqualified after being challenged over their political stances and having their oaths invalidated.

Lo Kin-hei's opposition Democratic Party says none of its members will file to run under the "patriots only" model once the election nominating period opens Oct. 30.   © Reuters

At this point, many see little point in anyone from the opposition attempting to engage in Hong Kong politics.

"It appears that the Chinese Communist leadership under Xi Jinping does not tolerate any significant force which can threaten or emerge as a formidable political force," observed retired politics professor Joseph Cheng.

With roughly two months before the Legislative Council elections, the city's largest opposition party, the Democratic Party, has said no members will file to run under the "patriots only" model once the nominating period opens Oct. 30.

Some say the absence of any opposition will mean there are no checks and balances. But Lo Kin-hei, chairman of the Democratic Party, said the group would continue to play its opposition role even outside the LegCo.

"We have always tried to hold the government accountable, I think that's always been our stance," Lo said. "It really depends on whether the government wants to listen to the opposition."

Meanwhile, at the same time as the new system has weakened the public's role in choosing their leaders, the government has also made it a crime to urge people not to vote or to cast blank or spoiled ballots in protest.

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