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.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Communist China says it has democracy, just the kind of democracy where the ruling party always wins. And that form of government is on display today in Beijing.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: The People's Congress is meeting in a massive hall with much fanfare and not much debate. The rubber stamp legislature will discuss the country's policy plans, and part of their agenda is the continued crackdown on the partial democracy in Hong Kong.
NPR's Emily Feng is in Beijing. Hey there, Emily.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: What would the proposed changes allow the central government to do in Hong Kong?
FENG: Two things - Beijing wants to put more of its appointees on an election committee that chooses Hong Kong's top leader, the chief executive, every four years. Now, Beijing already has a huge amount of influence over choosing the chief executive, but now they're looking for total control. And the second thing they want is Beijing also plans to pack Hong Kong's legislature, the Legislative Council, with candidates Beijing either vets or directly appoints itself. Hong Kong's current chief executive, Carrie Lam, who is in Beijing today for the legislative meetings, defended these proposed changes.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CARRIE LAM: This need to change the electoral system and arrangements in Hong Kong is for - the one single purpose is to make sure that whoever is governing Hong Kong is patriotic.
INSKEEP: What do she and the central government mean by patriotic?
FENG: China's top official for Hong Kong clarified that being patriotic means love for China's ruling Communist Party. And among the proposals being debated this week in Beijing is one that might set up a vetting committee to assess the patriotism of anyone running for office.
Hong Kong was never a democracy. But when people vote, they tend to vote against Beijing there. For example, in November 2019, there was a landslide election where pro-democrats got control of most of the region's community-level councils. And that gave them hope they might even win some legislative seats, which really spooked Beijing. And just this week, Hong Kong's charged 47 activists who organized a related primary with subversion.
INSKEEP: Well, given that that's happening, is it still possible for local politicians to run for office if they have any independence at all?
FENG: People are mixed. I mean, right now, the political opposition in Hong Kong has been practically decimated. Most people are either already in jail, in exile or they've been disqualified by Beijing. But some people I talked to said, on the local level, they will still try to run. I spoke to one district councilor, a community officer named Lo Kin-hei, and he says, despite all of this, he wants to run for re-election.
LO KIN-HEI: We should hang on to any possible platforms that we have. I think we need somewhere to keep the people not having their passion wearing out.
FENG: I mean, after all, Hong Kong's ability to vote for certain offices is a big difference between it and mainland China. But for people like Lo Kin-hei, even if he wants to run, he can only do so if Beijing lets people like him do so.
INSKEEP: Takes some courage. Emily, thanks so much.
FENG: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Emily Feng reporting in Beijing today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.