Hong Kong police’s national security department will take “necessary action” over any breaches of the security law it uncovers in the course of screening candidates for upcoming elections, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang told the Legislative Council on Wednesday.

The police force’s role in screening political candidates was introduced in Beijing’s sweeping overhaul of the city’s electoral system passed on Tuesday.

national security police purple warning flag
Officer carrying a purple flag that warns against violation of the national security law by displaying flags, banners and chanting slogans. Photo: Inmediahk, via CC 2.0.

“Regarding the review of eligibility of candidates in process of review… if evidence is found that the person has been involved in breaches of the national security law, the unit will take necessary action in response,” Tsang said during a question and answer session.

The secretary, however, added that the role the department plays in the vetting process is “not a criminal investigation itself.”

Under Beijing’s new election system for Hong Kong, anyone hoping to run for a seat at the Legislative Council, the Election Committee, or the role of Chief Executive will first be subjected to screening by the police’s national security department, which will pass its findings to a vetting committee made up of several of the city’s top officials. The vetting committee will in turn decide whether the candidate is allowed to run.

Central and local authorities have said the new system is necessary to ensure only “patriots” can participate in Hong Kong’s governance. The city’s leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that the new system will still allow candidates from across the political spectrum to stand for election.

Vetting committee ‘appropriate’

In response to questions from the city’s sole remaining opposition lawmaker, Cheng Chung-tai, as to whether the vetting committee set-up invites conflicts of interest, Tsang said the decision to have executive officials vet future lawmakers was “appropriate.”

“[R]est assured we are acting fairly. Our colleagues openly accept questions and criticism from councillors; it does not affect our judgement,” the secretary said.

Erick Tsang Legco
Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang. Photo: LegCo Screenshot.

The specific officials who will form the vetting committee will be announced when the bill is drafted, he added.

The bill incorporating Beijing’s electoral system into Hong Kong law will be submitted to the Legislative Council for scrutiny in mid-April. Tsang said he hoped the bill can have its third reading by the end of May, with the aim of passing the bill in time for voter registration to begin in June.

Hong Kong now has three upcoming elections — one for the Election Committee to be held in September, one for the Legislative Councils now scheduled for December, and the Chief Executive elections set for next March.

“Each and every time, we will consider the circumstances of that particular election so the decision will not affect the other elections,” Tsang said. “If the candidate is judged not to be eligible… it doesn’t mean that he is not eligible to stand for future elections. The vetting process will be done in respect of each and every separate election.”

Tsang added that the same principle will apply for candidates who have previously been disqualified: “Even if a returning officer has decided a certain candidate is ineligible, it does not mean the vetting committee will automatically come to the decision he is not eligible.”

Narrow judicial review restrictions

Decisions made by the vetting committee based on the national security department’s recommendations are not subject to judicial review, according to Beijing’s amendments on Tuesday.

Tsang, however, clarified that the restriction against legal challenges is limited solely to decisions made by the vetting committee based on recommendations from the police national security department.

west kowloon law courts building judiciary
The West Kowloon Law Courts Building. File photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

“If the national security committee puts forward an advice refuting the eligibility of a certain candidate, only in that case will the decision not be subject to legal challenge. Otherwise legal challenge is allowed in all other scenarios,” he said.

Llewellyn Mui of the Department of Justice also confirmed the narrow provisions barring judicial review, meaning that the legislation passed into local electoral laws can still be challenged in Hong Kong courts.

“If [the vetting committee] is of the opinion that certain candidates do not satisfy the eligibility criteria, then the vetting committee’s decision will not be subject to any legal proceedings,” the senior government counsel said. “Other than that, we are not aware of any other issues in the annex which are not subject to litigation.”

“Under legal system of the HKSAR… the normal principles apply,” he added, “Especially legislation relating to electoral laws… if there should be any challenges… the courts, based on the general principles, will entertain such challenges.”

The LegCo subcommittee on the new electoral system will reconvene on Thursday afternoon.

The legislature currently has no effective opposition after the democratic camp collectively resigned last November in sympathy with four of their colleagues who were disqualified, so the law is expected to pass with no holdups.

electoral overhaul election newspaper advertisement
A front page advertisement placed by the Hong Kong government in local newspapers on March 31, 2021 to promote the electoral overhaul. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

All of the city’s newspapers save pro-democracy Apple Daily had a front-page advertisement featuring a letter from Chief Executive Carrie Lam praising the newly-approved election overhaul on Wedesday.

‘Undermining freedoms’

Critics have raised concerns over the new electoral system, which they say all but guarantees democrats and dissidents will be barred from running in future elections. The overhaul also reduced the ratio of directly-elected legislative seats from 35 out of 70 to 20 out of 90. Rights groups and foreign governments have accused Beijing of further limiting the city’s already restricted democracy.

UK foreign minster Dominic Raab criticised the election overhaul as eroding the city’s freedoms on Wednesday, accusing Beijing of once again breaching the handover agreement between Beijing and London that guaranteed a high degree of autonomy and existing freedoms and liberties to remain unchanged for 50 years.

“Today China enacted changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system which are a clear breach of the Joint Declaration — undermining the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong and breaking Beijing’s international obligations,” Raab said.

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Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.