China approved a sweeping overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system on Tuesday, Xinhua news agency reported, drastically curbing democratic representation in the city as authorities seek to ensure “patriots” rule the global financial hub.
The measures are part of Beijing’s efforts to consolidate its increasingly authoritarian grip over its freest city following the imposition of a national security law in June, which critics see as a tool to crush dissent.
The changes would see the number of directly elected representatives fall to 20 from 35 and the size of the legislature increase to 90 seats from 70 currently, while an election committee responsible for selecting the chief executive will increase from 1,200 members to 1,500, Xinhua said.
The representation of 117 community-level district councillors in the election committee would also be scrapped and the six district council seats in the Legislative Council will also go, according to Xinhua.
District councils are the city’s only fully democratic institution, and almost 90% of the 452 district seats are controlled by the democratic camp after a 2019 vote. They mostly deal with grassroots issues such as public transport links and garbage collection.
The electoral restructuring was endorsed unopposed by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, at the apex of China’s legislature, Xinhua reported.
As part of the shakeup, a powerful new vetting committee will monitor candidates for public office and work with national security authorities to ensure they are loyal to Beijing.
Chinese authorities have said the shakeup is aimed at getting rid of “loopholes and deficiencies” that threatened national security during anti-government unrest in 2019 and to ensure only “patriots” run the city.
The measures are the most significant overhaul of Hong Kong’s political structure since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and alter the size and composition of the legislature and electoral committee in favour of pro-Beijing figures.
Beijing had promised universal suffrage as an ultimate goal for Hong Kong in its miniconstitution, the Basic Law, which also guarantees the city wide-ranging autonomy not seen in mainland China, including freedom of speech.
Critics say the changes move Hong Kong in the opposite direction, leaving the democratic opposition with the most limited space it has ever had since the handover, if any at all.
Since the security law was imposed, most pro-democracy activists and politicians have found themselves ensnared by it, or arrested for other reasons.
Some elected legislators have been disqualified, with authorities calling their oaths insincere, while scores of democracy activists have been driven into exile.
In February, Xia Baolong, head of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council, China’s cabinet, said patriots would also resolutely oppose foreign interference in Hong Kong.
Those who violate the national security law, or challenge the leadership of the ruling Communist Party, are not patriots, he said.
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