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Beijing-Led Electoral Reforms for Hong Kong Redefine 'Democracy,' Critics Say

FILE - A TV screen broadcasts Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam during a news conference in Hong Kong, March 30, 2021.

Hong Kong’s legislature will undergo major changes to its format and structure as a result of Beijing's approval of a political shakeup that will expand its control over the semiautonomous city.

China’s National People's Congress, the Communist Party's rubber-stamp legislative body, passed a resolution earlier this month proposing the overhaul, which would make it harder for candidates from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition to be elected.

The revamp, signed into law Tuesday by President Xi Jinping, reduces the number of directly elected seats on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and increases the number of pro-Beijing voices.

Those seeking office will face strict vetting by a special committee, which critics expect to shut out pro-democracy forces and ensure that “patriots” govern the Chinese city.

Lee Cheuk Yan, a veteran pro-democracy activist and former lawmaker, told VOA that it’s a “disastrous act” for Hong Kong.

“I think it's closer to the National People's Congress, which also have the candidates before any election takes place. There will not be any more credibility for this Legislative Council in the future,” he said.

Fewer selections by public

In its current form, the Legislative Council has 70 members, of which 35 are selected every four years by popular vote from various municipal constituencies and district councils.

FILE - The Legislative Council is shown in session in Hong Kong, March 17, 2021.
FILE - The Legislative Council is shown in session in Hong Kong, March 17, 2021.

Under the reforms, Legislative Council seats will increase to 90, of which the public will vote for only 20, down from 35. The lawmaking body's Election Committee, which is heavily pro-Beijing and tasked with appointing Hong Kong’s chief executive, will be expanded to 1,500 members from 1,200.

Lee said during his time as a Legislative Council lawmaker from 1995 to 2016, the aim was to gradually increase the number of seats to be filled by public elections.

"Don’t go too quick, too fast — we have to make a gradual step,” he said. “The debate was always about the speed, never about the direction. But now this time, the direction is backwards and it’s really a shock to us.”

The former lawmaker believes those seeking greater democracy will have to wait for more opportunities in the future.

“I think we have to prepare ourselves to be outside the system for some time to come, for years to come, wait it out," Lee told VOA. "Wait for Hong Kong people to continue [voicing protest], if possible on the street, to work it out in civil society."

Lee is due in court Thursday to learn his fate on a charge of illegal assembly in relation to pro-democracy protests in 2019. He has four cases outstanding.

Political analyst Joseph Cheng said the changes make Hong Kong’s Legislative Council a “rubber stamp” system and that the future of a natural pro-democracy opposition is bleak.

“It is likely that most critical pro-democracy candidates will be disqualified, hence the candidates' qualifications committee. But the Hong Kong government will try to persuade some moderates to run as acceptable pro-democracy candidates,” Cheng told VOA.

No 'single model' of democracy

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive, told a news conference on Tuesday there is not "only one single model of democracy" and that if candidates pass security checks and uphold the city’s Basic Law — Hong Kong's constitutional guarantee meant to keep the city semiautonomous until 2047 — they can run to be elected.

FILE - A man walks past a government advertisement promoting the new Hong Kong electoral system changes, in Hong Kong, March 30, 2021.
FILE - A man walks past a government advertisement promoting the new Hong Kong electoral system changes, in Hong Kong, March 30, 2021.

“For people who hold different political beliefs, who are more inclined towards more democracy, or who are more conservative, who belong to the left or belong to the right, as long as they meet this very fundamental and basic requirement, I don't see why they could not run for election,” she said.

Avery Ng, chairman of the League of Social Democrats, disagrees.

"The Beijing government is redefining the terms 'election' and 'democracy,' " he told VOA. "The new system cannot be considered as democracy when the government can control who can run and who can nominate. Together with the screening committees, the system only fits one, not all.”

Lam confirmed that the next legislative elections under the new system would be held in December. The city was scheduled to hold elections last September, but they were postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After a century and a half under British colonial rule, Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 under the Basic Law agreement, but Beijing’s influence over the city grew over the years, sparking pitched pro-democracy demonstrations that have simmered since 2019.

In June 2020, China passed the National Security Law for Hong Kong, limiting autonomy and making it easier for dissidents to be punished. Dozens of high-profile pro-democracy activists have been arrested and jailed. The law carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.