China’s rubber-stamp parliament on Thursday overwhelmingly endorsed a proposal on “improving the electoral system” of Hong Kong, further restricting the ability of people in the city to freely elect their leaders.
Members of the National People’s Congress in Beijing voted 2,895 in favor of the proposal, with no votes against and one abstention.
The passage of the “draft decision” was considered all but inevitable after the Chinese government announced plans to revamp Hong Kong’s electoral system earlier this month. Votes at the NPC are considered largely ceremonial, with the parliament not known to vote against legislation submitted by the country’s leaders.
The stated goal of the draft changes, which came on the closing day of the annual meeting, is to ensure that only “patriots” govern Hong Kong, a definition which Chinese officials have made clear requires not only loyalty to the country, but loyalty to the Communist Party.
“When we talk about patriotism, we are not talking about the abstraction of loving a cultural or historical China, but rather loving the currently existing People’s Republic of China under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party,” Song Ru’an, deputy commissioner of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong, told reporters this week in a briefing about the law change.
“Patriots should respect the Chinese Communist Party,” he added.
The decision includes a plan to alter the size and composition of the city’s legislature, increasing the number of seats from 70 to 90, therefore reducing the overall percentage of democratically elected officials.
The Electoral Committee, a body which is currently responsible for selecting the city’s chief executive, will be expanded from 1,200 to 1,500 members, and be given the authority to nominate candidates for the legislature, as well as the power to appoint roughly a third of the body’s seats. The remaining third will be taken by so-called functional constituencies, which are chosen by trade and industry bodies.
Speaking last week, NPC spokesman Zhang Yesui said the unrest of 2019, during which Hong Kong was rocked by often violent anti-government protests, “showed that the electoral system needs to be improved” in order to ensure “patriots govern.”
In the wake of the unrest, pro-democracy candidates won a landslide in local elections and were expected to build on this performance in parliamentary elections that were scheduled for September 2020.
Those elections were postponed, however, on the grounds of the coronavirus pandemic, and the government has since moved to prosecute dozens of prominent pro-democracy politicians for taking part in a primary vote in the run-up to the original election date.
Prosecutors claim the opposition aimed to win enough seats in order to block the government’s budget and potentially force the chief executive to resign, a plan previously in keeping with the city’s constitution but has since been deemed to be contrary to a national security law imposed upon the city last year by Beijing.
Should they avoid the potential decade or more in prison that the law provides for those found guilty of “subversion,” the activists and former lawmakers being prosecuted will likely find it hard to reenter politics under the new requirements.
Already last year, multiple candidates had been blocked from standing for office by returning officers, based on a perceived lack of patriotism or alleged contravention of the national security law, which also criminalized “secession” and “collusion with foreign forces.”
Speaking this week, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said that “there is no so-called international standard of democracy. Every democracy has to look into the proper context of that particular country, or that particular place.”
“We are improving the electoral system by making sure that whoever is governing and administering Hong Kong in future is somebody who loves the country, who loves Hong Kong,” she added.