HK reform plan adopted overwhelmingly; detailed measures ‘to be unveiled before end of March’

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Chen Qingqing Zhao Yusha

Hong Kong residents sign their names at Wan Chai Street Station in support of the National People’s Congress decision to improve the Hong Kong electoral system and ensure “patriots governing Hong Kong.” Photo: cnsphoto

Chinese lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to adopt a decision on improving the electoral system of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) at the closure of the fourth session of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC), the country’s top legislature, in a move to fix loopholes in Hong Kong’s governance.

A total of 2,895 votes supported the draft decision, zero voted against it and one abstained. A long round of applause broke out when the decision was approved, real-time broadcast footage showed.

At Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s press conference after the two sessions concluded, Li said the decision for improving Hong Kong electoral system is clear-cut, and aims to adhere to the “one country, two systems” principle, while the principle of “patriots governing Hong Kong” will also ensure the steady implementation of the “one country, two systems.”

The passage of the decision reflected a collective will of the Chinese people to solve deep-seated political flaws in the Hong Kong society that were clouding its future development, according to local officials and predominant scholars on Hong Kong affairs. The reform also set the tone for the city’s democratic processes for the next 25 years and more, toward which the central government won’t make any compromises after the unprecedented social turmoil in 2019 when the radical opposition camp hijacked public opinion in seeking to grab the power of authority, which is always within the scope of the central government’s governance.

The decision of overhauling the electoral system came after China’s top legislature implemented the national security law for Hong Kong in June 2020. The two pieces of highly expected legislation are considered as two cornerstones in resolving categorically the problems accumulated over the years since the city returned to the motherland in 1997, clarifying some long-term misunderstandings over the “one country, two systems” principle and restoring the constitutional order of the city as one of China’s special administrative regions (SAR).

Why the change?

The draft decision came up with detailed measures including enhancing the functions and roles of the Election Committee for electing Legislative Council (LegCo) lawmakers and the region’s chief executive, expanding the scope of candidates to make local elections more representative and setting up a high-level vetting committee to ensure candidates meet the principle of “patriots governing Hong Kong” – a fundamental baseline set by top Chinese officials on Hong Kong affairs.

The measure of expanding the scope of representation itself refuted some criticism arising from the West, mainly led by the US and the UK, in claiming that the planned overhaul undermines the city’s democracy and cracks down on opposition groups.

“What is democracy? Democracy means that, for example, if you disagree with me, we can discuss it. If you don’t like my opinion, you can go away. But you can’t beat me, you can’t set fire on me and you can’t throw bricks at me, right?” Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, former LegCo president and former member of the NPC Standing Committee, told the Global Times in an exclusive interview on Wednesday.

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen those scenarios in Hong Kong in 2019, when some radical anti-government figures disguised their ill-intentioned acts in the name of the so-called democracy, freedom and human rights with no respect to others,” she said, noting that the so-called democratic pursuit of Hong Kong has been going forward on the wrong path, bringing Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability to the brink of collapse.

“This has to be stopped, with the help of the central government,” Fan said.

Over the past 24 years since the return of Hong Kong to the motherland, the central government has come up with a mentality of “maintaining the current situation and seeking compromises” in dealing with Hong Kong affairs, however, given the internal and external environment, such a mentality won’t work anymore, and the central government won’t compromise in governing Hong Kong, Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, a member of the Basic Law Committee, told the Global Times in an exclusive interview on Wednesday.

“The central government had no willingness to take the initiative of making the changes, hoping that Hong Kong could fix its problems by itself,” she said. “However, the city failed to safeguard those bottom lines.”

Dozens of anti-government figures in Hong Kong, including former LegCo lawmakers and district councilors who were recently charged with conspiring to subvert state power, have all been put into custody. And senior Chinese officials including State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and Xia Baolong, vice chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, have reiterated that “for civil servants and people who run public positions, pledging loyalty to their own country is a basic political and ethical standard,” which is not the highest but the lowest standard.

What will change?

To expand the scope of participation and reach a balanced representation, the number of seats on the Election Committee will be increased from 1,200 to 1,500. The number of seats in LegCo will be increased from 70 to 90, with a balanced distribution of seats returned by geographical constituencies, functional constituencies and the Election Committee, according to the NPC decision.

The Election Committee shall be composed of 1,500 members from the five sectors with a newly added sector – Hong Kong deputies to the NPC, Hong Kong members of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and representatives of Hong Kong members of related national organizations. The draft decision has not mentioned whether the seats of district councilors would be scrapped, as some people close to the matter suggested that some “super seats” would be phased out, and whether to exclude the district councilors remains sensitive, which needs to go through more discussions for detailed reform measures to be unveiled by upcoming NPC Standing Committee meetings

Given the purpose of de-politicizing the district councils, the total 117 seats of district councilors in the Election Committee may be scrapped. However, NPC deputy Michael Tien Puk-sun suggested on Thursday that not all the district council seats should be canceled but the number needs to be reduced.

Members of LegCo shall include members returned by the Election Committee, those returned by functional constituencies, and those returned by geographical constituencies through direct elections.

To plug existing loopholes by screening out unqualified participants in the political life of Hong Kong, a candidate qualification review committee of the HKSAR shall be established, which will be responsible for reviewing and confirming the qualifications of candidates for Election Committee members, the Chief Executive, and LegCo members.

Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, told the Global Times in previous interviews that the candidate qualification review committee should be led by high-level government officials, including the office for safeguarding national security of the central government in Hong Kong by following detailed principles and procedures in conducting political scrutiny of candidates.

In accordance with the decision and the Basic Law’s Annex I and Annex II amended by the NPC Standing Committee, the HKSAR shall amend relevant local laws, and organize and regulate election activities accordingly.

As the task of law amendment is urgent for the Hong Kong SAR government, which is expected to be done within 12 months, given that there will be several elections in coming months including the election for Election Committee, LegCo and chief executive, the NPC Standing Committee would immediately hold the meeting in coming weeks to talk about more detailed overhaul plans while the Hong Kong government initiates the law amendment work.

Some lawmakers forecast that the detailed plans would be unveiled before the end of March for setting out more detailed guidelines for the Hong Kong SAR government to conduct a complete overhaul of the local political system.

‘Lighter than a feather’

A number of organizations and officials from both the mainland and Hong Kong expressed their support for the Hong Kong electoral reform decision being approved by the top legislature, saying the new plan would bring the city into a new era.

The Legislative Affairs Commission of the NPC’s Standing Committee, the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council, all issued statements saying that electoral reform will create a better future for Hong Kong.

Local officials in Hong Kong including Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wa, Chief Secretary for Administration Matthew Cheung Kin-chung and Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po all welcomed the NPC’s decision, regarding the reform as a necessary step of ensuring the “one country, two systems” being carried out in a correct and sustainable way.

The Hong Kong SAR government said it will provide the NPC Standing Committee with views on the composition of the five sectors of the Election Committee, with a view to ensuring the Election Committee fulfills the requirements of being broadly representative and reflecting the overall interests of Hong Kong’s society.

After the national security law for Hong Kong was implemented in 2020, a number of countries, particularly the Five Eyes, expressed concerns and threatened sanctions upon top Chinese officials and some officials in Hong Kong regarding the matter.

The social turmoil triggered by anti-government protests that turned into black-clad rioting activities in 2019 deprived Hong Kong people of security and happiness, making Hong Kong residents to reflect on what democracy really is, which should not be defined by Western-led public opinion, Hong Kong-based columnist Chris Wat Wing-yin told the Global Times in a recent interview.

“Is the so-called democracy from Western countries the best system for Hong Kong? After the social turmoil and the COVID-19 epidemic, I believe many people would expect good governance and good policies rather than the so-called democracy,” Wat said.

For some senior officials who have already been sanctioned by the US over Hong Kong, any blatant interference from foreign countries into China’s internal affairs, including Hong Kong affairs, has not shaken their determination in pushing forward other related legislation in safeguarding the country’s core interests, and they have come up with a consensus of seeing the so-called sanctions “lighter than a feather.”

“It’s not a question about Hong Kong’s democratic process, it’s a question of subversion,” Tam Yiu-chung, a member of the NPC Standing Committee from Hong Kong delegation, told the Global Times in a recent interview.

“And there’s no need to look up to Western-style democracy, what is suitable for Hong Kong with its own characteristics will be the best democracy for it,” Lau said.

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