HONG KONG — Activists have campaigned for decades to bring full democracy to Hong Kong, and China promised — when it resumed control of the city from Britain in 1997 — to work toward introducing universal suffrage.
But changes to the city’s legislature — the Legislative Council — and election system approved this week by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in Beijing will erect new hurdles for anyone seeking to run for office as well as diminish the public’s role in electing both legislators and the city’s chief executive.
Here are five things you need to know about the dramatic overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system.
Why does Beijing want to overhaul Hong Kong’s electoral system?
Sustained and sometimes violent protests against the Hong Kong government and Beijing’s interventions in local affairs through the second half of 2019, as well as the opposition’s landslide victory in neighborhood-level district council elections late that year, prompted the central government to reevaluate the city’s political system.
Although the structure for electing members of the city’s legislature instituted in 1997 set many obstacles to opposition parties’ exertion of political power, Beijing worried that they might be able to carry through with plans to win parliamentary control in polls originally scheduled for September 2020.
After Beijing last June adopted a national security law for the city setting penalties for subversion, secession and collusion with foreign forces, local officials disqualified 12 legislative candidates for objecting to the law.
Days later, the government postponed the September election by a year, citing an upsurge in COVID-19 cases. Forty-seven people involved with an opposition-bloc candidate primary were subsequently charged under the security law with a subversive conspiracy to “topple” the government by seeking a parliamentary majority.
How will police be involved in the city’s new electoral process?
The new electoral rules give national security bodies power over who can run for office. Under the legal framework approved this week, all potential candidates for the Legislative Council and chief executive will need an endorsement by the police department’s national security unit and the Committee for Safeguarding National Security.
Both bodies were established last July after the passage of the national security law. The committee’s members include Hong Kong’s chief executive and senior officials. The director of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong serves officially as an adviser.
After that, legislative hopefuls will still need endorsement by two more bodies: a new candidate qualification review committee consisting of principal government officials and then by the election committee, which until now has been charged only with electing the chief executive. Approval by the election committee will require winning support from five member groups: business, professionals, labor and religious organizations, incumbent lawmakers and delegates to national bodies.
While it remains unclear how high the new hurdles will be, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said pro-democracy politicians will still be able to run for office if they can pass patriotism and national security checks.
How will the Legislative Council be elected under the new framework?
Under the new framework, the Legislative Council will expand from 70 seats to 90, but only 20, or 22.2% of the total seats, will be elected by the public. That compares with 40 seats, or 57.1% of all seats, in the last election in 2016 and would be the lowest directly elected proportion since the colonial era.
The biggest share of seats will now be filled by members of the election committee, which is dominated by pro-government groups. The remaining 30 seats will still be assigned to representatives of industry and social groups, with two allocated to representatives of Chinese state-run companies for the first time.
How will elections for chief executive change?
Hong Kong’s chief executive has never been publicly elected. Since the handover from Britain, the city’s leader has been elected by a simple majority by the election committee.
To tighten oversight of the committee, the body will expand from 1,200 members to 1,500. The city’s delegates to the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference will fill most of the new seats, with one serving as convener of the committee.
All 117 seats on the election committee previously reserved for elected district councilors will be refilled with members of appointed neighborhood bodies.
What is next for Hong Kong’s democracy camp?
The electoral overhaul has drawn condemnation from the EU, the U.K. and the U.S., and Washington has sanctioned 24 mainland Chinese and Hong Kong officials whom it regards as responsible for the changes.
Beijing has been unmoved by the backlash, and the future looks dim for Hong Kong’s democracy camp, which is still on the fence about whether to participate in future elections. While some members think it would be better to have a voice than not, others believe the last avenues for meaningful political opposition have been closed.
In the wake of last year’s election postponement, the authorities ousted four incumbent opposition legislators who had been disqualified from standing again based on an assessment of their patriotism. Fifteen of their colleagues then resigned en masse in protest, leaving the Legislative Council without opposition representation.
“Even if you insist [on running], you may be barred from standing,” said Emily Lau, a former lawmaker who chaired the Democratic Party. “And then, even if you did get in, you may be disqualified at any time if they regard you as unpatriotic.”
“We don’t just take part for the sake of taking part,” she said. “We take part because it is something meaningful. But if that is not going to be the case, why do you want to take part?”