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China's electoral reform 'earthquake' set to upend Hong Kong politics

James Pomfret and Clare Jim
·5 min read

By James Pomfret and Clare Jim

HONG KONG, March 2 (Reuters) - China's plan to dramatically reform Hong Kong's electoral system, expected to be unveiled in a parliamentary session in Beijing starting this week, will upend the territory's political scene, according to more than a dozen politicians from across the spectrum.

The proposed reform will put further pressure on pro-democracy activists, who are already the subject of a crackdown on dissent, and has ruffled the feathers of some pro-Beijing loyalists, some of whom may find themselves swept aside by a new and ambitious crop of loyalists, the people said.

"It will be an earthquake shaking up local political interests," said one person briefed on the impending changes.

The measures will be introduced at the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, China's rubber-stamp parliament, which starts on Friday, according to media reports.

The plan was signalled last week by senior Chinese official Xia Baolong, who said Beijing would introduce systemic changes to only allow what he called "patriots" to hold public office in Hong Kong.

In a full transcript of his remarks published this week by the pro-Beijing Bauhinia Magazine, Xia said Hong Kong's electoral system had to be "designed" to fit with the city's situation and shut out what he called non-patriots, some of whom he described as "anti-China agitators" that would bring destruction and terror to the city - a reference to pro-democracy campaigners who took to the streets in sometimes violent demonstrations in 2019.

Xia did not announce any specifics, but the plan will likely include changes to how the 70-seat Hong Kong legislature is elected, and the composition of a committee that will select Hong Kong's next leader, according to the person briefed on the plan and local media reports.

Veteran democrats have been quick to condemn the plan.

"It totally destroys any hope for democracy in the future," said Lee Cheuk-yan, a pro-democracy former member of Hong Kong’s legislature. "The whole concept of Xia Baolong is that the Communist Party rules Hong Kong and only those that support the party can have any role."

Lee learned of the impending reform last week, in the middle of his trial, along with a group of eight other pro-democracy activists, for unlawful assembly charges related to a protest in August 2019.

"It's no longer for people to decide," Lee told Reuters on a lunch break from the trial last week. "It's one party rule, completely."

The prospect of further bending the electoral process to China’s liking has also worried some pro-Beijing figures, who think it may be going too far and ultimately hurt Hong Kong.

"Don't go too far and kill the patient," Shiu Sin-por, a pro-Beijing politician and former head of Hong Kong's Central Policy Unit, told reporters after a briefing session with Xia on the matter. The opposition camp has already been neutralised by last year’s national security law, Shiu said, allowing the government to "push forward policies smoothly."

China's main liaison office in Hong Kong, and China's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Hong Kong government said in a statement that it was prioritising the implementation of the principle of "patriots ruling Hong Kong" and improving the electoral system, and that it will continue to listen to views on the matter.

POLITICAL MATHEMATICS

Electoral reform is the latest political tremor to hit Hong Kong, a former colony that Britain handed back to China in 1997, which retains some autonomy from Beijing and whose status as a global financial hub was built on the rule of law and civil liberties not allowed in mainland China.

The city’s atmosphere has changed radically in the past 18 months. Mass street protests in 2019 against China's intensifying control prompted Beijing to impose a sweeping national security law last June, which authorities have used to jail activists and stifle dissent.

On Sunday, Hong Kong police charged 47 pro-democracy campaigners and activists with conspiracy to commit subversion for their roles in organising and participating in an unofficial primary election last July, the biggest single crackdown under the new law.

Even though such arrests have already marginalised the pro-democracy camp, China wants to exert greater control over a voting process largely unchanged since 1997, and is still afraid of democrats winning a majority in the legislature at the next election, said the person briefed on the electoral reform plan.

"They did the mathematics and it was seen as too risky to do nothing," said the person.

Two senior pro-Beijing politicians told Reuters the electoral reform plan, coming on top of the broader crackdown that has already provoked international criticism, would ultimately damage Hong Kong, potentially destroying its unique character, pluralism and attractiveness for investors.

"It's really sad that Hong Kong has degenerated to this stage," said one of the politicians, on the electoral reform. "We're handing Hong Kong over to the next generation in a worse state than we inherited it."

The two pro-Beijing politicians spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, due to the sensitivity of the matter. It is rare for pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong to voice any doubt about China’s moves, even anonymously.

"Nothing is normal anymore,” said the second pro-Beijing politician. “It's a new abnormal."

One faction that appears ready to benefit from electoral reform is the new Bauhinia Party, formed in May by Charles Wong and two other mainland-born, pro-Beijing businessmen, pushing policies that Wong says will help revive Hong Kong and its leadership.

"They (Beijing) never really have any opposition to what we do," Wong told Reuters in his 12th-floor seafront office last week.

Wong, 56, was born in mainland China but came to Hong Kong as a youth and speaks fluent Cantonese, the local dialect. Describing himself as a "patriot," Wong embodies China's declared wish to have Hong Kong run at all levels by people with closer ties and sympathy with the mainland.

"We are Hong Kong people," he told Reuters. "We love Hong Kong." (Reporting by James Pomfret and Clare Jim in Hong Kong: Additional reporting by Sharon Tam in Hong Kong: Editing by Bill Rigby and Neil Fullick)