China Must Reform Hong Kong Election Rules, Carrie Lam Says

Hong Kong’s leader said it is “crystal clear” that Beijing needs to reform the financial hub’s electoral system, just a day after China’s top official for the city signaled major changes were coming.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said political unrest in the former British colony, including massive protests in 2019, had forced Beijing to ensure the city is governed by patriotic officials.

“It is crystal clear we have reached a stage where the central authorities will have to take action to address the situation, including electoral reform,” Lam said at a press conference Tuesday morning. “I can understand that the central authorities are very concerned. They don’t want the situation to deteriorate further.”

Beijing’s top official for the city said on Monday that China faces the “critical and urgent” task of overhauling the way Hong Kong handles its elections. Beijing needed to implement reforms “to ensure that Hong Kong’s governance is firmly controlled by patriots,” Xia Baolong, director of China’s cabinet-level Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said.

Speaking to the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, Xia said that to improve Hong Kong’s electoral system, “relevant legal loopholes within the framework of the Constitution and the Basic Law” need to be closed -- and that it was up to the central government to communicate those changes to the local administration.

China Must Reform Hong Kong Election Rules, Carrie Lam Says

His remarks followed a number of articles and comments in Chinese state media, and are the latest sign that China is contemplating further curbs to Hong Kong’s already-limited democracy, where a committee of business and political elites selects the city’s leader and Beijing retains veto power.

Election Committee

Beijing intends to limit the influence of opposition groups on the 1,200-member body that picks the chief executive, taking seats from pro-democracy politicians and assigning them to pro-China loyalists, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday, citing people familiar with the proposal. The changes would pass during an annual session of China’s legislature in March, the report said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin declined to comment on “speculative reports” during a press briefing in Beijing on Tuesday. Individuals in Hong Kong’s government should be patriots, he added.

Beijing is considering eliminating the 117 Election Committee seats held by district councilors, many of them members of the pro-democracy camp, local media outlets reported. Those officials are elected to run some of the lowest levels of Hong Kong’s government, typically dealing with issues such as traffic or garbage collection.

Pro-democracy politicians made some inroads on the committee with a landslide victory in district council elections in late 2019, increasing their share of seats. That influence was eroded when the government delayed a Legislative Council election in September last year that could have seen democracy advocates score another win. Their sway was further diminished when opposition lawmakers were disqualified and then resigned en masse late last year.

China has taken various steps to stamp out dissent in the former British colony since the sometimes-violent protests, most notably by imposing a sweeping national security law last year. Beijing also allowed the local government to disqualify lawmakers who were insufficiently patriotic. In comments to Lam in late January, Chinese President Xi Jinping said Hong Kong should be governed by “patriots” in order to ensure the city’s stability following unprecedented unrest in 2019.

Hong Kong plans to change a law so that district councilors must pledge their allegiance to China, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang said at a briefing on Tuesday. Those who do not will be barred from running for office for five years, he said.

Last month Hong Kong asked all civil servants appointed before July 1, 2020, to sign a declaration that they will uphold the city’s laws. Lam told lawmakers earlier this month that district councilors should have to take an oath.

In the past, China “didn’t want to directly intervene at the district level,” said Dongshu Liu, an assistant professor of Chinese politics at City University of Hong Kong. “This current move indicates they are trying to push their control deeper into Hong Kong society.”

China Must Reform Hong Kong Election Rules, Carrie Lam Says

Lam added Tuesday that a potential law banning insulting public officials was not at an advanced stage, but many people in her government wanted the legislation. “Many public officers on the front lines in recent years have been intimidated, threatened and insulted in carrying out their duties,” she said.

Local media outlets have reported that the city’s government was considering such a law, which would mark the biggest move to limit freedom of speech in Hong Kong after China imposed a broad national security law last year in the wake of mass demonstrations in 2019.

Lam said in in a news conference on Monday that reforms would not be designed to limit the influence of pro-democracy politicians but that no one in government should engage in unpatriotic activities, such as colluding with foreign powers to subvert China’s central government.

“This need to change the electoral system and arrangements in Hong Kong is for one single purpose, that is to make sure that whoever is governing Hong Kong is patriotic,” she said. “It applies to various aspects of the political structure, including the executive, the legislative, the judiciary, the district councils and the civil service.”

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