With the change to the electoral law in Hong Kong, which was formally resolved on Tuesday, Beijing has made the most severe encroachment on the autonomous status of the Special Administrative Region to date. The new electoral law aims to further weaken the pro-democratic opposition in the financial metropolis – and is likely to further undermine the principle of “one country, two systems”. Because the new right to vote has consequences for the entire Hong Kong political system.
When it was transferred to China in 1997, the former British crown colony of Hong Kong had been granted comprehensive autonomy rights for the next 50 years. According to the “one country, two systems” formula, Hong Kong residents were given civil liberties that do not apply in mainland China, such as freedom of expression and freedom of the press. At no point was Hong Kong a full-fledged democracy. However, its Beijing-approved constitution states that the goal is “universal suffrage”.
With the massive encroachment on Hong Kong’s electoral law, Beijing is now taking another step towards undermining the principle of “one country, two systems”. The right to stand for election will be subject to the complete control of Beijing by ensuring that only those politicians who Beijing regards as “patriots” can run for the parliament of the financial metropolis.
Hong Kong was not involved in the legislative process that led to the change in electoral law. As in the case of the controversial so-called Hong Kong Security Act, the electoral law changes were fully worked out in Beijing. The central government justifies this against the principle of “one country, two systems” by saying that “loopholes” would be prevented in this way.
The most important change in the electoral law is the creation of a powerful review committee that will subject anyone who wants to run for a seat in Parliament in Hong Kong to political scrutiny. Anyone who is classified as a national security risk or unpatriotic by the body may not run for office or be appointed as a member of parliament. The decisions of the committee are not legally contestable.
According to Tam Yiu-chung, the only Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress, the Hong Kong authorities should set up the body themselves. Accordingly, the controversial new security apparatus of Hong Kong should also participate in the candidate examination process.
So far, the Hong Kong Parliament had 70 seats, half of which were filled by direct election. The remaining 35 MPs were appointed by so-called functional constituencies, which represent certain professional interest groups and are largely Beijing-loyal. The Hong Kong head of government was chosen by a reliable pro-Chinese electoral committee made up of 1,200 delegates.
With the change in electoral law, the Hong Kong parliament will grow to 90 seats, of which only 20 will be filled by direct election. 40 seats are determined by the election committee, which in turn is enlarged by a further 300 delegates. The remaining 30 seats are allocated by the functional constituencies.
According to the Speaker of the Hong Kong Parliament Andrew Leung, the new electoral law will be applied for the first time in December. The parliamentary election should originally have taken place in the summer of last year, but was postponed by the authorities with reference to the corona pandemic.
Experts fear that the parliamentary opposition in Hong Kong will be silenced by the changes in electoral law. “Pro-democratic groups will in all likelihood play a very marginalized role in legislation – if at all,” said Singaporean political scientist Chong Ja Ian in an interview with AFP news agency.
The Chinese leadership has long been a thorn in the side of pro-democracy MPs in Hong Kong. Following the expulsion of four of their colleagues by the authorities, 15 pro-democracy MPs resigned in November last year. Since then, all government proposals have passed through parliament – without lengthy debates or questions from critical MPs.