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The Hong Kong Electoral Reform Bill

China’s parliament recently approved Hong Kong’s electoral system reform plan. The legislature will undergo major changes as a result of this approval. The reason why this came into existence finds its roots in 1997, when Hong Kong was given back to china under a principle that advocated for “one country, two systems”. This was meant to protect certain freedoms for Hong Kong, which no other part of mainland china enjoys, freedom of assembly and speech, an independent judiciary, and some democratic rights. These freedoms are listed in Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which was meant to last until 2047.

In the first few years after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, Beijing was confident that the city would be able to chart its own course and granted a relatively free hand to then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa to govern the city. Back then, to highlight the central government’s determination to steer away from Hong Kong’s politics, Beijing officials even told the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), the flagship of the pro-establishment camp that regularly visited Beijing before the 1997 handover, to stop organizing official trips. The DAB leadership only visited the mainland in the party’s capacity shortly after the July 2003 protest that saw 500,000 Hong Kongers take to the streets over a proposed national security bill. The legislation was ultimately shelved amid the resistance. Massive pro-democracy protests took place in 2019, some of which turned violent. Later that year, pro-democracy groups made huge gains in local district council elections.

The move appears to be a continuation of china's plan to tighten control over Hong Kong, considering these recent developments. This reform bill provides Beijing with greater control over the process while reducing the number of directly elected representatives and increasing the number of pro-Beijing voices. This reform brings about several changes which many critics including the UK government, allege as attempts to undermine the “one country two systems” principle. Chinese authorities have rejected criticism, saying the election reform is necessary to assure the region's stability. Officials say the overhaul seeks to get rid of "loopholes and deficiencies" and assure that Beijing loyalists are in control. 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, tasked with appointing Hong Kong’s chief executive, will be expanded to 1500 members from 1200. Any prospective MP, member of the Election Committee or candidate for Chief Executive will be vetted by a separate screening committee, making it easy to bar anyone deemed as being critical of Beijing.

There will also be changes to the legislative council itself, diluting the influence of directly elected MPs. Forty seats will go to MPs chosen by the Election Committee while 30 will be given to MPs elected by special interests such as business, banking and trade, which historically are pro-Beijing. In the current 70-member legislature, voters elect half the members and the other half is chosen by constituencies representing various professions and interest groups. Many of those constituencies are also pro-Beijing. This is justified by Beijing in a statement that says the goal is to keep “unpatriotic” figures from political power in Hong Kong.

Critics however have concluded this as an act that will lead to the end of democracy in Hong Kong, eradicating the opposition in the process. This reform marks significant change in Beijing’s role, as it transitions into a player taking direct stances in Hong Kong’s affairs. Its decision last month to revamp the city’s elections to ensure only “patriots” can rule the city will see the number of legislative council seats expanded from 70 to 90, while skewing the odds in favors of the pro-establishment camp by stipulating that 40 lawmakers will now be selected by the powerful election committee from among its own members.

Beijing’s major involvement in the election committee and influence in contests for a substantial number of seats in legislative council could be a double-edged sword. While it could prevent most opposition politicians from becoming lawmakers, Beijing could land itself in hot water as it could get both credit and blame for governance in Hong Kong. From now on, conflict between Hong Kong people and the city government could easily escalate and draw in Beijing.

~ Risika Singh


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