Beijing on Tuesday unveiled comprehensive plans to ensure that anyone standing for election to Hong Kong’s legislature is a staunch supporter of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with all candidates to be vetted by the national security police before being allowed to stand.
The new system will force election hopefuls to run a multi-layered gauntlet of pro-CCP committees before they can appear on any ballot paper. However, the decisions of all of those committees will hinge on approval by the national security branch of the Hong Kong Police Force, according to details published by the National People’s Congress (NPC) standing committee.
“The Committee for Safeguarding National Security of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) shall, on the basis of the review by the department for safeguarding national security of the Police Force of the HKSAR, make findings as to whether a candidate for member of the Legislative Council meets the legal requirements and conditions [to stand for election],” the NPC standing committee said via an annex to Hong Kong’s Basic Law that takes legal effect on March 31.
Should a candidate fail to meet the requirements of loyalty to the CCP, the national security police will “issue an opinion” to the Candidate Eligibility Review Committee.
There will be no right of appeal, according to the annex.
“No legal proceedings may be instituted in respect of a decision made by the Candidate Eligibility Review Committee of the HKSAR on the eligibility of a candidate for member of the Legislative Council pursuant to the opinion of the Committee for Safeguarding National Security of the HKSAR,” it said.
Elections to the Legislative Council (LegCo), which were previously scheduled for September 2020 and then postponed by a year, have now been pushed back to December 2021.
While 20 seats in a newly expanded 90-seat LegCo will still be returned by geographical constituencies and popular ballot, voters may only choose from among candidates pre-approved by the multi-layered vetting process, ensuring that pro-democracy politicians and rights campaigners are unlikely to make the cut.
The remaining seats will be appointed, or returned by trade, industry, and special interest groups. As with the geographical seats, all candidates must be pre-approved by national security police.
The authorities are also required to take action against anyone seeking to “undermine” the electoral system.
Earlier this year, police charged 47 pro-democracy activists and opposition politicians with subversion under a draconian national security law after they organized and took part in a democratic primary to select the best candidates with a view to winning at least 30 seats out of 60 in LegCo and blocking government legislation.
The U.K. said the new rules were in breach of its bilateral treaty with China on the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, which promised moves towards full universal suffrage, and for the city to retain its traditional freedoms of speech, association, and political participation, as well as judicial independence.
“Today China enacted changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system which are a clear breach of the Joint Declaration – undermining the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong and breaking Beijing’s international obligations,” foreign secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement.
Voters won’t count
Ma Ngok, associate professor of politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the new rules will ensure that public opinion matters very little to politicians in future, as candidates won’t represent the views of voters, but that of the government and the CCP.
“It makes no difference what mechanism they use; the role of public opinion in policy-making will be drastically reduced,” he said.
“The government can pretty much control 40 [of these seats], and the proportion of seats returned by the business community will also be reduced … as we move from 70 to 90 seats,” he said.
Hong Kong current affairs commentator Willy Lam agreed.
“Politics also reflects the economic structure of Hong Kong, which has become increasingly dominated by mainland Chinese companies,” Lam said, adding that China will no longer need to woo Hong Kong businesses that had their roots in the colonial era, as it once did.
“The election process [lobbying for support] for the chief executive will also become less important,” he said.
Reduced political influence
Ivan Choy, senior politics lecturer at CUHK, said the aim of the new rules is to concentrate power in the hands of committees, as well as reducing the political influence of Hong Kong property tycoons.
“This will reduce their dependence on the industrial and commercial sectors and on the big property developers,” Choy said. “It’s not just about diluting the democrats.”
“These committees … are highly manipulable by Beijing, so Beijing won’t need to bother forging alliances with trade and industry,” he said. “It can do whatever it wants.”
Some members of Hong Kong’s cabinet, the Executive Council (ExCo), said the new system was an improvement on the last, which saw a landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates in District Council elections in November 2019, following months of mass popular protest against plans to allow extradition to mainland China, that broadened into demands for fully democratic elections and greater official accountability.
“The ExCo Non-official Members hope that with the improved electoral system, society will be able to move away from the excessive politicisation and the internal rift[s] that have plagued Hong Kong in recent years,” they said in a statement.
Reported by Lu Xi and Chung Yut Yiu for RFA’s Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.