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Beijing Prepares Hong Kong Election Laws, Further Erasing Freedoms

Pro-democracy demonstrators gesture with three-fingered salutes outside West Kowloon Magistrates Courts during a hearing for opposition activists charged with violating the city's national security law in Hong Kong Thursday, March 4, 2021. All 47 of the pro-democracy activists in a Hong Kong subversion case returned to custody Thursday after a marathon hearing ended with them being denied bail.
Pro-democracy demonstrators gesture with three-fingered salutes outside West Kowloon Magistrates Courts during a hearing for opposition activists charged with violating the city's national security law in Hong Kong Thursday, March 4, 2021. All 47 of the pro-democracy activists in a Hong Kong subversion case returned to custody Thursday after a marathon hearing ended with them being denied bail.

BEIJING, China — China's legislature is debating draft guidelines that would drastically overhaul Hong Kong's electoral system to give Beijing near total control over the region's election outcomes.

While Beijing has not publicized the details of the proposals, it has outlined broad changes that would effectively allow Beijing to vet candidates for Hong Kong's legislative council and pack an election committee which chooses the region's chief executive.

Chief among the proposed guidelines would be an increase in the size of Hong Kong's legislative council and its election committee. That committee would also vet all candidates running for legislative council positions, guaranteeing Beijing a majority in each body.

"The administrative power in Hong Kong must be maintained in the hands of patriots," Xia Baolong, China's top official in charge of Hong Kong affairs, said in a speech last week.

"You cannot say that you are patriotic but you do not love the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party or you do not respect it," added Eric Tsang, a senior Hong Kong official, the day after.

Beijing-appointed officials have been preparing to roll out these electoral changes for weeks in the run-up to China's annual political meetings.

"This need to change the electoral system and arrangements in Hong Kong...is to make sure that whoever is governing Hong Kong is patriotic," Hong Kong's current chief executive told reporters last month."

But a public announcement of the proposals came only late Thursday night by a senior Communist Party official, Zhang Yesui. Hong Kong's election system then suddenly appeared on the agenda of China's rubber stamp National People's Congress hours before it convened for a week of annual political meetings. China's parliament is expected to pass the guidelines by March 11, when the meetings end. An elite body of legislators will create more detailed implementation rules afterwards.

Two of Hong Kong's former chief executives urged the region's residents to embrace Beijing rule. Tung Chee-hwa, the city's first chief executive, released a statement Friday arguing that Hong Kong has reached a juncture when "it has to reform." Tung currently is vice chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a political body that also meets this week.

Leung Chun-ying, who was chief executive until 2017, said in a two-part video speech that many of the region's political opposition were "separatists" who opposed Beijing's rule: "In Hong Kong the extra autonomous power that we enjoy actually comes from Beijing." Leung is currently a delegate in China's legislature.

Hong Kong has never been an electoral democracy, but under the region's Basic Law — a mini-constitution adopted after the region's handover to Chinese rule in 1997 — residents can vote for local district councilors and directly elect half of the region's 70 legislators.

Even before Beijing's proposed electoral changes, mainland China exerted significant influence over Hong Kong's government bodies.

The makeup of Hong Kong's 1,200 person-strong election committee, which chooses the region's top chief executive post, is already packed with officials who favor Beijing and the Beijing-appointed delegates to two mainland political bodies. In 2014, Beijing announced it would vet future candidates for the chief executive post, prompting large peaceful protests.

"Some of the chaos in Hong Kong shows that there exist obvious loopholes and deficiencies in the current electoral system and mechanisms which provided opportunities for anti-China and anti-Hong Kong forces to take over management in Hong Kong," Wang Chen, vice chairman of China's legislative elite standing committee, said in a speech Friday.

Wang is likely referring to a November 2019 local election in which pro-democratic forces won 17 out of 18 of the region's district councils amid record voter turnout. The landslide election gave pro-democratic politicians hope that they could work together to win enough seats on the Legislative Council, some members of which help decide Hong Kong's next chief executive.

Last July, pro-democratic activists organized an informal primary poll to pick legislative candidates with the most public support — an action Hong Kong officials called potentially a subversive. Fifty poll organizers were eventually arrested under a national security law. Hong Kong delayed legislative elections for a year, citing the coronavirus pandemic.

This week, forty seven of those arrested were formally charged with subversion for organizing last July's informal primary. All but fifteen were denied bail before their trial in May.

"Beijing is no longer prepared to tolerate an election that it cannot rig," said Alvin Cheung, a legal scholar at New York University's U.S.-Asia Law Institute

Amy Cheng contributed research in Beijing.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.