Veteran pro-Beijing politicians have voiced support for China’s plans to change Hong Kong’s electoral system to what one of them called a “new, democratic electoral system with Hong Kong characteristics,” but a leading democrat said opposition voices would be silenced.

Tam Yiu-Chung (left), and Maria Tam (right). Photo: NowNews via Facebook screenshot.

“Some people may think, has the NPC (China’s National People’s Council or legislature) replaced Hong Kong in making decisions about the electoral system?” Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s delegate on the NPC’s standing committee, said during a video interview broadcast on NowNews.

“This is in full accordance with what’s been laid out in the [Chinese] constitution and the Basic Law. Matters about Hong Kong’s political system are within the central government’s authority,” he said.

Tam Yiu-chung and Basic Law Committee vice-chair Maria Tam travelled to Beijing to attend the “Two Sessions,” a week-long meeting of around 5,000 members of the political elite serving on either the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference or the NPC.

Wang Chen. Photo: RTHK Screenshot.

Wang Chen, vice chairman of the NPC standing committee, on Friday outlined far-reaching changes Beijing has in store for Hong Kong at the opening of the legislature’s annual meeting on Friday. The changes, which are certain to be approved by the NPC in its meeting, will further erode the influence of traditional pan-democrats in Hong Kong politics.

Recent events showed that the city’s current electoral system “is problematic,” Tam Yiu-chung said. “To oppose the central government, to oppose the special administrative region government, opposing everything, it can’t go on.”

File Photo: Studio Incendo.

The changes will be carried out “in accordance with the practical situation in Hong Kong,” he said, and “become a new, democratic electoral system with Hong Kong characteristics.”

Maria Tam addressed during the same interview criticisms that the changes would be a backward step for Hong Kong’s democratic progress.

“Hong Kong could have had universal suffrage in 2017, when the central government and the [NPC] Standing Committee allowed it – we got this opportunity,” she said. “But some people who were anti-China and Hong Kong rejected it. They stole our plan to universally elect the chief executive in 2017.”

Maria Tam.

“Then they ‘Occupied Central’ for 79 days, and stormed the Legislative Council on July 1, 2019, and then we had about 11 months of riots,” she said, referring to the Umbrella Movement in 2014, a pro-democracy civil disobedience campaign originally conceived as “Occupy Central.”

Thousands occupied roads around the legislature and in two other key districts in peaceful protest at China’s plan to tightly control who could stand in future universal suffrage elections for chief executive.

The protests which began in 2019 were initially peaceful but later degenerated into fierce clashes between police and demonstrators.

Photo: inmediahk.net.

Executive Council member Ronny Tong described Beijing’s plans for Hong Kong as “a good thing” during a radio programme on RTHK. More elected representatives from across the political spectrum could enter the legislature if the central government increased the number of seats, Tong told the programme.

China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong said Hongkongers supported what Wang had outlined. “All sectors in Hong Kong society have voiced their support, and believe that this is an arrangement to ensure [the principle] of ‘patriots rule Hong Kong’ will be implemented, and a necessary step to protect national sovereignty, security, development interests and Hong Kong’s long term prosperity and stability,” its statement read.

But Lo Kin-hei, chairman of the Democratic Party and a member of Southern District Council said his fellow party members have had “zero chance” to discuss the impending changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system, as they were all occupied with a high-profile court case against 47 democrats accused of subversion in breach of the national security law.

Lo Kin-hei. Photo: inmediahk.net.

A marathon bail hearing in the case ended on Thursday but most of the accused remained in custody on Friday. Four have been granted bail, while eleven others also allowed bail remain behind bars while a justice department objection in their cases is heard.

Many prominent opposition politicians and activists in Hong Kong are now either in detention or in exile, and critics say the crackdown has intensified since Beijing imposed the national security law on the city last June.

“No matter how they try to interpret the new changes… they are trying to replace or add in new seats, which will be less representative of the people, into the election system,” Lo said.

Half of the Legislative Council, which currently has 70 members, is popularly elected at present. The others are elected in functional constituencies representing various interest groups or professions and tend to be pro-Beijing.

“The only result will be that those who can represent the people, the directly-elected councillors, will be less and less influential,” Lo said, as the number of directly-elected seats would likely be reduced from half of the legislature to just one-third, in addition to plans for candidates to be vetted.

“These changes will only create problems for anyone with opposition views to be candidates in any form of election,” Lo said. “It is not healthy and not helpful to Hong Kong.”

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.