Pro-establishment lawmaker Michael Tien says that the centrally-imposed overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system is as far Beijing will go in terms of tightening its grip on the city, and that pragmatists like him will emerge as the biggest winners in a revamped Legislative Council (LegCo).

“This is the worst [things will get],” Tien said in an interview with HKFP, adding that changes to the electoral system are required to bring Hong Kong “back to normal.”

Michael Tien
Photo: Ocean Tham/HKFP.

Elected to the LegCo in 2012, Tien refused to label himself on the political spectrum. However, the lawmaker is known for being one of the few in the pro-establishment camp willing to criticise the government.

Tien said that in the current system, “voices of reason” like him are “doomed” because people think that they have to be “on the extreme right or the extreme left.”

“I honestly, hand on heart, feel that’s what Beijing wants, they don’t want the extreme left and the extreme right,” Tien said. “They want the very die-hard pro-Beijing, and the more centrist patriots.”

YouTube video
Camera: Ocean Tham/HKFP. Editing: Victor Tsang/HKFP.

On March 11, China’s top legislature approved a resolution to revamp Hong Kong’s elections. The new proposal aims to ensure that only “patriots” hold power in the city’s administration and sit in its legislature.

The number of members on the Election Committee responsible for choosing Hong Kong’s leader will be expanded from 1,200 to 1,500, with a new sector added to the existing four groups.

Michael Tien
Photo: Ocean Tham/HKFP.

The committee will also be responsible for nominating and electing a number of Hong Kong’s lawmakers, creating a third constituency in addition to the current geographical and functional constituencies.

While the exact details have yet to be announced, the resolution passed by the National People’s Congress (NPC) stipulates that there will be 20 more seats in the LegCo, taking the total to 90. The Election Committee will also select “a larger proportion” of legislators.

“I’ve always felt that we need a third sector [in the LegCo],” Tien said, adding that there a lot of “elite individuals” who “don’t want to be out on the street trying to sell dreams, kiss babies and take pictures and get votes” but who can contribute to Hong Kong and benefit from a revamped electoral system.

YouTube video
Camera: Ocean Tham/HKFP. Editing: Victor Tsang/HKFP.

Tien said at present, lawmakers elected in the geographical constituencies only care about short-term goals, while legislators in the functional constituencies are tied down to their respective sectors.

A self-proclaimed “voice of reason”, Tien said that a third sector would bridge the gap between the different interests of the geographical and functional constituencies.

“We need a sector like that which can help balance the view, and also probably help the government push through some painful policies and reforms, but these people won’t go for the current kind of elections,” said Tien.

Carrie Lam Legislative Council Q&A
Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

In addition to a third sector, under the proposed overhaul, all candidates running for the LegCo election will have to secure nominations from all five sectors. Tien says this will be “a very healthy exercise.”

The political veteran believes a lot of newcomers in the LegCo “offer very little.

“The quality of debate – and I can say that not just on the pan-dem’s side, it’s the same on the pro-establishment side – the quality of debate is actually deteriorating,” he said, adding that the nomination requirement would allow the committee, acting as “a third party,” to see who is fit to run.

Tien, who has been a geographical constituency legislative councillor since 2012, said that the new LegCo would mean that lawmakers from both constituencies would have to “lobby for the support” of the third sector.

“What’s wrong with that?” Tien said, adding that he was also was not worried about the diminishing influence of directly elected lawmakers.

Michael Tien
Photo: Ocean Tham/HKFP.

“Why can I not try to go for two more seats? I can go for two more seats in the election committee,” he said, describing the committee as a “microcosm” of Hong Kong.

‘It’s going to be better from now on’

The proposed election overhaul comes in the wake of Hong Kong’s most turbulent years since the handover. Following the anti-extradition bill protests in 2019, Beijing introduced the national security law, criminalising subversion, secession, foreign interference and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to public transport and other infrastructure.

In 2019, Tien was one of the few pro-establishment lawmakers who called for the withdrawal of the extradition bill and the setting up of an independent inquiry. Looking back, the lawmaker said that if Hongkongers had accepted the political reform proposals in 2014, the chief executive elected would not have pushed for the extradition bill.

YouTube video
Camera: Ocean Tham/HKFP. Editing: Victor Tsang/HKFP.

In 2014, the Standing Committee of the NPC issued a decision which stated that Hong Kong’s chief executive and Legislative Council candidates have to be nominated by a 1,200 people nomination committee before standing in elections.

The decision sparked the Umbrella Movement, a 79-day long pro-democracy civil disobedience campaign during which thousands occupied roads around the LegCo and two other districts in Hong Kong.

“If we had taken that, and we had elected a chief executive that is fully aware that, in order to get a second term, he or she needed to get on the good side of the people, I don’t think Carrie Lam would push through the extradition bill,” said the lawmaker.

may james china extradition best of
Photo: May James.

Tien is also convinced that the Central government will not further tighten Beijing’s control over Hong Kong following the election overhaul.

“Why would they need any tighter [control]? They got national security bill, they have a election system, where there is a qualification review committee and a nominating process going on, what else do they want?” said Tien.

The pro-establishment figure also said that he would rather have had this (the overhauled) system from the onset of the handover in 1997.

“If they gave us a highly controlled system on day one, watch how we behave and slowly slowly moderate it, [we] would’ve gotten universal suffrage probably much earlier,” he said, adding: “It’s going to be better from now on.”

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.