A leading member of Beijing’s top think-tank in Hong Kong has called for authorities to conduct political vetting of election candidates, as he predicted major changes to the city’s electoral system.

Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the semi-official Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, forecast significant reforms so that only “patriots who love Hong Kong” could run in elections.

Lau Siu-kai. File Photo: CUHK.

His statements echo recent media reports on impending changes designed to neuter the pro-democracy camp’s role in future polls. The Legislative Council is already devoid of opposition members after four of them were sacked for an alleged lack of loyalty to Beijing and the other 15 quit in sympathy.

Under the current arrangement, Lau said, electoral officers could only vet candidates administratively and on whether they support the Basic Law, but lack legal power to vet their political background.

He said the government should instead set up a mechanism or department, led by senior or even national security officials and operating in secret, to screen election hopefuls “strictly” and to “stop anyone anti-China and stirring up trouble in Hong Kong from entering the race.” This, he said, would be similar to work by the intelligence branch in British colonial times.

A banner being set up in 1997 ahead of the UK-China Handover ceremony. File Photo: Stephen Shaver/AFP.

There may also be changes to rules on candidate and voter eligibility, the voting method, campaigning and campaign finance, Lau said, speaking to online state media outlet Orange News on Tuesday,

Lau’s comments echo several recent reports that the government is considering significant restrictions to the electoral system to ensure the opposition’s influence is quashed. Last week police arrested 55 activists and former democratic politicians under the Beijing-imposed national security law for alleged subversion.

They were involved in organising or standing in a primary poll organised by the pro-democracy camp last July to pick candidates for a LegCo election slated for last September. The government later postponed the polls for a year, citing the coronavirus pandemic.

Authorities say plans announced by some primary organisers, to win a majority in LegCo, vote down the budget and force the chief executive to quit, amounted to subversion.

Democrats’ primary election in July 2020. File Photo: Studio Incendo.

In a Tuesday editorial entitled “Hong Kong elections must not be tools for anti-China forces stirring up trouble in Hong Kong,” Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily said these forces attempted to “seize power” in the District Council election in 2019, and schemed to manipulate the Legislative Council and the chief executive election committee in a “so called” primary election.

This seriously challenged Hong Kong’s constitutional order and democratic system, the editorial read. “All sorts of chaos was revealed in the Hong Kong elections, which threatened national security and Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.”

2019 District Council elections. File Photo: May James/HKFP.

“Hong Kong elections must follow the principle and bottom line of ‘Letting patriots and those who love Hong Kong rule Hong Kong, and disqualify those who are anti-China and stir up trouble’,” the editorial read.

On the same day, Reuters reported that Beijing is considering making changes to the 1,200-person committee which elects the chief executive and which is already stacked with pro-Beijing members. It said authorities may further delay the LegCo election originally scheduled for last September.

SCMP reported on Wednesday that Beijing is considering whether British National (Overseas) passport holders should be banned from holding public office, and even from voting.

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.