Hong Kong legislature approves Beijing's political overhaul

Hong Kong (AFP) –


Hong Kong's opposition-devoid legislature on Thursday approved Beijing's radical overhaul of the finance hub's political system which reduces the number of directly elected seats and will freeze out most China critics.

Beijing ordered sweeping changes to Hong Kong's electoral system back in March, the latest step in an ongoing crackdown on the city's democracy movement after massive and often violent protests.

The changes will ensure a large majority of lawmakers are selected by a reliably pro-Beijing committee and that every candidate must first be vetted by national security officers.

The legislature will be expanded from 70 to 90 seats, but only 20 of them will now be directly elected, down from 35.

Hong Kong has never been a democracy, something at the root of years of growing political unrest, but a vocal minority opposition was allowed in the city's legislature.

When Hong Kongers can vote they tend to do so overwhelmingly for pro-democracy candidates, something that has rattled authoritarian Beijing.

China's leaders moved to stamp out that opposition and dismantle Hong Kong's limited democratic pillars after massive protests broke out in 2019 followed by pro-democracy candidates taking local district council elections with a landslide.

Their first step was to impose a national security law last year that outlawed much dissent.

More than 100 prominent democracy supporters, including opposition lawmakers, have since been arrested under the law.

Beijing then turned its attention to the city's political system.

Hong Kong authorities have trumpeted the electoral reform as a way to return stability.

"The changes will expand Hong Kong's balanced and orderly political participation, and safeguard Hong Kong's overall and fundamental interests," Constitutional Affairs Minister Erick Tsang said Thursday, adding critics "ignored the chaos" of the last few years.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the bill soon afterwards with 40 votes in favour and two against.

Under the new political system it is unlikely many, if any, opposition figures will be allowed to stand.

Some observers have likened the new system to a more restrictive version of Iran's political system, where only those approved by the country's authoritarian leadership can run in elections.

Hong Kong's formerly raucous legislature was already cleared of pro-democracy opponents when they resigned en masse late last year after three of their colleagues were disqualified for their political views.

Since then, the government has fast-tracked a number of laws with limited scrutiny and dissent.

Earlier this month the legislature approved new powers allowing the government to sack public office holders and bar election candidates from standing if they are deemed "disloyal" to local authorities or China.

In April it approved a new immigration bill in an afternoon that critics warned gave authorities power to stop people leaving the city without a court order.