Details are now falling into place on the re-design of Hong Kong’s local law-making body, the Legislative Council (LegCo). These details follow from the nine-point decision on general principles passed by the National People’s Congress in Beijing, on March 11. 

Specifics are contained in amendments to the annexes of Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution and were passed by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) on March 30. They went into effect the next day, March 31.

Legislative Council meeting on the first day without democrats after they announced mass resignations. File Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The announced aim of the impending major overhaul is to shut out all disruptive voices representing Hong Kong’s current democracy movement. Henceforth, only patriots will be allowed to stand as candidates in Legislative Council elections. 

“Patriots” is the term Beijing is now using to designate those whose political orientations are usually referred to in Hong Kong as being “pro-Beijing” or “pro-establishment.” In fact, patriots used to be the term used to designate Hong Kong’s small “patriotic community,” or local leftists who remained loyal to the “new” China after the Chinese Communist Party came to power there in 1949.  

After the Japanese occupation ended in 1945, Hong Kong was flooded with waves of newcomers from across the border, fleeing first the military disruption of the late 1940s civil war, and then the political upheavals of the next three decades as the newly empowered Chinese Communist Party sought to realise its political objectives in all spheres of life and work. 

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Not surprising that within such a population Hong Kong’s patriotic community and mainstream society each remained in their own separate worlds, and Hong Kong became known as an anti-communist town.

But the “patriotic” designation fell into disuse after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997. Everyone thereafter was supposed to be patriotic, at least in the conventional sense of the term, because everyone now owed allegiance to the Central People’s Government in Beijing.

Meanwhile, “pro-Beijing” became the designation of choice for the old-style committed loyalists. “Pro-establishment” designated their allies: the tycoon class with all their cross-border business interests. Also included in this designation were other “conservatives” who could contain their enthusiasm for all the new-fangled notions about populist political participation whether on the left or right.

The inclination of “traditional” patriots to regard the others as opportunists was carefully contained after 1997, at least in terms of public discourse. Such inclinations have begun to resurface now that everyone on this end of the political spectrum finds they have Hong Kong’s political arena to themselves. 

So, it is ironic that today, over 20 years after Hong Kong’s “return to the Motherland,” the designation “patriot” is being revived to draw a clear line between those who have emerged as pro-democracy partisans during the past two decades, and those who have not.

Even more ironic is the aim of creating a failsafe system so secure that no aspiring pro-democracy candidate, as currently defined, will be able to make it to the starting gate at election time.  

Carrie Lam meets the press on March 11, 2021 after the National People’s Congress passed a resolution to overhaul the city’s electoral system. File Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

Pro-democracy candidates have consistently won the lion’s share of the votes cast in Legislative Council elections since 1991, when the colonial government belatedly introduced universal suffrage for a few of its seats. This trend culminated in the landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates contesting the most recent District Councils election in November 2019. 

Beijing’s new designs are thus calculated to disregard not only the candidates but the voters they have been representing as well, dating back to Hong Kong’s first partially-elected legislature in the early 1990s.

The existing design

Debates continued endlessly both while the Basic Law was being drafted in the late 1980s and afterward.  Hong Kong’s last British governor, Christopher Patten, tried to design some variations of his own in the hope they might create precedents and enliven the new Basic Law blueprint. He served as governor from 1991 until 1997, but all his experiments were jettisoned soon after he sailed away at midnight on July 1, 1997.

The existing design was spelled out in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the document that was drafted under Beijing’s direction and promulgated in 1990, to serve as Hong Kong’s constitution after the 1997 return to Chinese rule. The reforms now underway will mark the first major change in that original design.  

Chris Patten. File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

They are needed, say Beijing leaders, to plug the loopholes and clarify gray areas that allowed Hong Kong’s democracy movement partisans to campaign on the promise of winning a majority in the 70-seat legislature for the first time since 1997.  

That goal had been proclaimed in preparation for the next Legislative Council election, originally scheduled for September 2020.  it was postponed, officially due to the coronavirus pandemic, but more likely to allow time for the drastic overhaul now under way.  

The existing system had actually been undergoing incremental changes since 1997, but always in the direction of more seats open to direct universal suffrage election, and fewer of the old-style appointed and indirectly elected variety. 

These incremental changes have been ongoing for both Hong Kong’s lawmaking Legislative Council, and the 18 neighbourhood-level Distract Councils that are supposed to concern themselves mostly with local amenities. In this way, the public has grown accustomed to the new political culture that came with this gradual expansion of the popular vote. 

Ted Hui. File Photo: May James/HKFP.

The system as of the last 2015-17 election cycle included a 70-seat Legislative Council, with 40 seats directly elected by voters in five Geographic Constituencies, plus one special all-city constituency. This last was designed to allow five District Councillors to serve concurrently in LegCo.

Additionally, 30 seats were elected indirectly by Functional Constituency voters. Some of these latter were corporate voters (representing some group or corporation), and some were voting as individuals (for example, the lawyers and doctors).  

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.

In addition, there was a 1,200-member Election Committee also created by Functional Constituency voters.  This committee was tasked with endorsing both Beijing’s choice for Chief Executive and the members of Hong Kong’s National People’s Congress delegation. 

The new design

It would be difficult to find a more clear-cut negation of the old British negotiators’ refrain about China’s leaders being men of their word. For that reason, it was said, they could be trusted to do what they said they would do, and fulfil the pledges they made before 1997, about how Hong Kong would be governed afterward.

The assurances were not just made in person, but formally written into the Basic Law.  Since 1997, the Basic Law has been cited chapter and verse as the authority Hong Kong lives by.  The democracy movement grew from one election cycle to the next, motivated by those promises that Beijing leaders had made and written into the document in the 1980s.

Basic Law. File photo: GovHK.

According to the Basic Law’s Article 45, there was to be “gradual and orderly progress” toward the “ultimate aim” of selecting Hong Kong’s Chief Executive by universal suffrage. Article 68 promised that the “ultimate aim is the election of all the members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage.”

Of course, there were also many caveats and qualifications. In the case of Article 45, universal suffrage elections would follow “nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”  Article 68 elaborated the caveat that “the method of forming the Legislative Council shall be specified in the light of the actual situation” in Hong Kong and “in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress.”

Today the contradiction is even more sharply drawn than those caveats and opt-out clauses suggest. The contradiction is between the “ultimate aims” — that have served as the motivating force for Hong Kong’s democracy movement — and the reforms now underway. This is because the reforms are intended to write an end – not just to the democracy movement – but to the idea of a Western-style universal suffrage election itself.

Photo: Pxhere.

Rather than “genuine” universal suffrage elections that democrats have been demanding, the reforms herald a new system that looks like what it is: a cross between Hong Kong’s old wholly appointed colonial legislature and China’s People’s Congress system. The latter relies on universal suffrage to endorse party-designated candidates up to the county level, and indirect party-managed elections from the county on up to the National People’s Congress. 

From this perspective, the integration of Hong Kong’s universal suffrage ideal within the mainland’s party-dominated People’s Congress system is well underway.

Bits and pieces of the new system have been circulating since late last year, based on hearsay and off-the-record information from unnamed “sources.” Now it’s official, as spelled out in the March 11 and March 30 decisions of the National People’s Congress and its Standing Committee.

British reformers used to laugh at the convoluted designs created by colonial administrators intent on producing “safe” representation in the colonial assemblies of days gone by. Here and now, Beijing designers have outdone themselves in their search for safety: closing every loophole and blocking every nook and cranny against the danger of democratic infiltration.

At the apex of the new system will be an all-powerful vetting committee tasked with validating the patriotic credentials of all candidates. This committee will be small and include an odd number of people to prevent tied decisions. 

Members will be Hong Kong’s top government officials and the committee will be chaired by Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Their decisions will be final and cannot be appealed or challenged in court. Naturally, such people are too busy to do any investigations of their own. They are to rely on information provided by Hong Kong’s new national security police unit. This in turn works with the new mainland-staffed Office for Safeguarding National Security.

As reported earlier, the centerpiece of the revamped system will be the old much-maligned and still unreformed Election Committee with its four sectors and multiple subsectors and corporate voting culture.  

Additionally, however, the Election Committee will have a new fifth sector that will be reserved for those at the traditional loyalist end of Hong Kong’s political spectrum. This includes members of Hong Kong’s National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Conference delegations, with the addition of Hong Kong members from other national bodies such as the Women’s Federation and the Youth League — and representatives of Hong Kongers currently resident on the mainland.

The addition of this last group suggests that the recent controversy over their absentee voting rights will be resolved in their favor. It is assumed that they will add a new block of several thousand votes to the anti-democratic columns.

Vetting, vetting, vetting

The size of the Election Committee will be increased from 1,200 to 1,500, in order to accommodate the newcomers. But the 117 seats reserved for District Councillors will be eliminated, presumably due to democrats’ dominating presence among them after the November 2019 election. 

Further, among the vetting procedures for all future Legislative Council candidates will be a requirement that they receive nomination signatures from each of the main sectors including the new fifth loyalist sector. In the past, nominating signatures were not sector-specific and democrats tended to be concentrated in the professionals’ second sector.  The likelihood of a democratic hopeful receiving sufficient signatures from the new fifth sector is not great.

 Chief Executive election candidates will also require nomination signatures from each of the five sectors. This is calculated to prevent democrats from trying to unite around the nomination of a preferred candidate as happened in the last, 2017, Chief Executive selection contest.

As for the Legislative Council itself, the number of seats will also be increased, from 70 to 90. But the new seats will be filled by the Functional Constituency-based Election Committee.  Additionally, the Functional Constituencies themselves will retain their 30 seats. The practice of corporate voting is to be reaffirmed and expanded.

The new breakdown of the 90-seat legislature will be: 40 Election Committee seats; 30 seats filled by the Functional Constituencies; and only 20 allocated for direct election by individual voters.  

The five multi-seat Geographical Constituencies, with direct votes allocated by proportional representation, will be replaced by 10 constituencies. Each will be represented by two legislators, with vote-calculating methods yet to be announced.

The reform package was passed unanimously by the NPCSC, 167 votes to zero. It was subsequently promulgated in two orders signed by paramount leader Xi Jinping himself.  Local legislation is being drafted to accommodate the new decisions from Beijing, with preparations getting underway for three elections in the coming year.  

The Election Committee will come first, necessitating the clarification of the participants eligible to participate in all the subsectors that make up the five main sectors.  

With the Election Committee and Functional Constituencies thus clarified, the Legislative Council election can follow.  

Then, if all goes well, the Chief Executive selection contest will mark the end of Hong Kong’s tumultuous 2020-21 election cycle, delayed by only one year, which can always be blamed on the coronavirus pandemic.


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Suzanne Pepper

Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and Hong Kong resident with a long-standing interest in Chinese politics. In her book, 'Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform', Pepper addresses debates surrounding democracy and dictatorship. Her blog follows the developing story of Hong Kong’s democracy movement as it struggles to maintain its coherence amid the growing pressures of integration within the Chinese political system.