On March 30, in a move they said was designed to ensure ”patriots” administered the city, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) in Beijing changed the annexes of the Basic Law to alter Hong Kong’s electoral system. Critics say the shake-up is a step backwards, reducing democratic representation. HKFP answers 10 key questions about the overhaul.

How does this change the existing system?

The Legislative Council (LegCo) is currently composed of 70 seats. Half of them are elected directly by the public via geographical constituencies – the other half are elected by special interest groups known as functional constituencies. The 50/50 ratio is now set to be replaced in a new 90-seat legislature, with 30 seats filled by functional constituencies and 20 by geographical constituencies, reducing democratic representation in the chamber. The remaining 40 seats will now be filled by those elected by a revamped Election Committee, who are usually tasked with electing the city’s leader.

hong kong officials
Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, Erick Tsang Kwok-wai, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Permanent Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Roy Tang pose before a press conference at the government headquarters in Hong Kong on March 30, 2021. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP.

This means that the influence of the geographical constituencies, which have the largest voter bases, will now be greatly reduced.

I am a Hong Kong permanent resident. Do I still have the right to vote?

The eligibility for voting in the geographical constituencies has not changed, so you will still have the right to vote in future elections. However, the candidates on your ballot paper will have had to go through a much more rigorous process in order to stand in the race. Candidates will need to obtain nominations from at least 10 members of the election committee, with each sector represented in the nominations collected.

After obtaining the required number of nominations, candidates will be screened by the candidate eligibility review committee, which will receive advice from Hong Kong’s national security committee on whether candidates fulfil the requirements to uphold the Basic Law and swear allegiance to the city.

district council election police riot
Photo: StandNews.

The national security committee will base its opinion on the findings of the national security department of the Hong Kong police, which will conduct a review into candidates seeking to run.

So the police will have a role in reviewing the eligibility of candidates?

Yes. At a press conference after the amendments were announced, Chief Executive Carrie Lam was asked this question and cited article 17(4) of the national security law, which reads as follows:

The duties and functions of the department for safeguarding national security of the Hong Kong Police Force shall be: conducting counter-interference investigation and national security review.

Did an election committee fill Legislative Council seats during the colonial era?

For much of Hong Kong’s colonial history under Britain, every lawmaker was appointed by the Governor. It was not until 1985 that a limited form of indirect election allowed some lawmakers to be chosen by electoral colleges. Even then, some lawmakers continued to be appointed by the Governor right up until the practice was finally abolished in the 1995 election. The 1995 election was also the first to include the use of an election committee, which chose 10 out of 60 lawmakers that year.

See also: ‘Less democratic than ever’: Politicians and the int’l community react to Hong Kong’s election overhaul

The election committee was once again used to elect 10 lawmakers in the 1998 election. Its influence was reduced to six seats in the 2000 election, then the committee was abolished entirely in the 2004 election.

Has the composition of the election committee changed under these changes?

Apart from the number of members increasing from 1,200 to 1,500, the share of seats allocated to District Council members has been scrapped. District councillors controlled 117 seats of the 1,200-member committee which selected the chief executive in 2017.

The share of seats allocated to District Councils will now be given to area committees, fire safety committees and crime prevention committees whose members are appointed by the government without a public election. Area committees are designed to promote public participation in district affairs and organise community-wide activities.

district council election november 11 (16)
Residents celebrate after Junius Ho lost his seat at the 2019 District Council election. Photo: Galileo Cheng/HKFP.

District Councils have been dominated by members of the pro-democracy camp since their landslide victory in the 2019 elections, however they will no longer have a say in electing the city’s leader.

I am a Hong Kong permanent resident and work in the teaching/legal/medical profession. Previously I had a vote in the functional constituency election. Do I still have it?

Functional constituencies for those professions will continue to be elected by individual voters, but just like the other constituencies, candidates will need nominations from each of the five sectors of the election committee in order to stand in the election. Any further changes to the electoral method in functional constituencies, such as the definition of corporate voters, have been left to the Hong Kong government to deal with in local legislation.

What is the reason Beijing is giving for the electoral changes now being introduced?

Wang Chen, vice chairman of the NPCSC, described the overhaul as providing a “well-established systemic guarantee” that the principle of “patriots governing Hong Kong” would be implemented. In explaining the necessity of this principle, Wang said that “the rioting and turbulence that occurred in the Hong Kong society reveals that the existing electoral system in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has clear loopholes and deficiencies, which the anti-China, destabilising elements jumped on to take into their hands the power to administer the SAR.”

Wang said that forceful measures must be taken to prevent and defuse risks arising from the activities of these elements.

Carrie Lam 2020 Policy Address
Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The timing of the changes are also significant and came nine months after the national security law was enacted by Beijing in response to the 2019 pro-democracy protests and unrest. Last July, Carrie Lam announced that the 2020 legislative race would be delayed by a year owing to a resurgence in Covid-19. At the time, democrats were in the lead following their district council landslide win months earlier, but Lam denied there were political considerations.

Can members of the pro-democracy camp still be elected under the overhauled system?

Officials in Beijing have insisted that members of the camp can still run for election, though it is unclear exactly who among the pan-democrats they would hold up as an example – most of the city’s democrats are currently behind bars. One could not simply equate the entire pro-democracy camp with anti-China elements, Zhang told reporters in March, adding that there were also “patriots” in that camp. Carrie Lam echoed those remarks, saying that those from the pro-democracy camp “will have more opportunities to take part in an election and to win the election” as long as they are considered sufficiently patriotic.

The candidate qualification review committee is likely to vet potential lawmakers according to similar criteria that have been used and progressively broadened since 2016, when candidate pre-screening by electoral officers was first introduced. If candidates have gone on record in support of Hong Kong independence, self-determination, a constitutional referendum, “mutual destruction,” or have called for foreign governments to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and China, then it is likely they will not be allowed to run.

september 1 china extradition burn with us
Photo: May James/HKFP.

Previously, candidates have been barred from elections or ousted from the legislature for similar reasons.

Can any aspect of these changes be challenged, such as through the Hong Kong courts?

No. The amendments specifically state that no legal proceedings may be undertaken in respect of a decision made by the candidate eligibility review committee, meaning that once a candidate is deemed ineligible to stand in an election, that decision cannot be challenged in the courts of Hong Kong.

Other aspects of the amendments are likely to be similarly immune from legal challenge, since the Hong Kong courts have repeatedly emphasised that they lack jurisdiction to review the legislative acts of the National People’s Congress and its Standing Committee.

Do these changes mean that the aim of universal suffrage mentioned in the Basic Law has now been abandoned?

Carrie Lam said that the articles in the Basic Law referring to the “ultimate aim” of universal suffrage for the chief executive and the legislature would not be amended. That means the aim mentioned in these articles would remain unchanged. She added that if Hong Kong is able to safeguard national security and enter into a situation of long-term stability, the implementation of universal suffrage according to the Basic Law could then be explored.

Whether “long-term stability” allows for the possibility that Hong Kong could have universal suffrage by the time its capitalist system is due to expire in 2047 was left unsaid.

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.