Hong Kong’s government is moving quickly to implement sweeping changes ordered by Beijing to the city’s political system, with a bill set to be presented to the local legislature next week.

Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang told legislators on Thursday the government plans to submit the bill to the Legislative Council (LegCo) in mid-April, and aims to have it passed by the end of next month.

Erick Tsang in LegCo subcommittee meeting on the election overhaul on Thursday. Photo: RTHK, via video screenshot.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam told a separate LegCo session the electoral overhaul bill would have its first reading next Wednesday.

The changes decreed by China’s legislature will sharply reduce the number of directly elected seats in LegCo, along with a variety of other changes including strict vetting of candidates by a committee. Local and foreign critics say the overhaul will bolster the power of pro-Beijing elements and effectively exclude pan-democrats.

The government says “patriotic” pan-democrats will still be able to stand.

Tsang said the government would consider extending the candidate vetting mechanism to Hong Kong’s district councils as well as to candidates for LegCo and for chief executive.

He told a LegCo subcommittee that candidates for LegCo and chief executive may be asked to provide clarifications if the vetting committee has any questions about their qualifications.

They will first be screened by the police national security unit and the city’s national security committee, followed by a election vetting committee comprised of top government officials.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Horace Cheung asked whether candidates would have an opportunity to make a statement before the vetting committee makes a decision. Tsang said this may not be guaranteed in circumstances involving national security.

“If we have any questions about the candidate’s qualifications, we will invite the candidate to give further information or explanation whenever possible,” he said.

The High Court ruled in May last year that election returning officers must give candidates a “proper opportunity” to respond to materials intended to be used to determine their eligibility, after former lawmaker Lai Siu-lai filed and won an appeal against an electoral officer’s decision to disqualify her from the 2018 LegCo Kowloon West by-election.

Tsang also said that while annexes 1 and 2 of the Basic Law did not specify that district council candidates must be vetted by the committee, the government would look into extending the mechanism to the local councils. But it was currently focusing on elections for LegCo and the chief executive.

“If the bill is passed, we hope to begin voter registration in June,” said Tsang. “In July, we will publish the final register of electors of the election committee subsectors.”

Pro-establishment lawmaker Paul Tse in a LegCo subcommittee meeting on the election overhaul on Thursday. Photo: RTHK, via video screenshot.

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Paul Tse raised concerns over the government’s ability to handle the workload given the degree of change proposed in all sectors.

“I’m really worried whether your timeline is overly optimistic,” said Tse.

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Candice Chau

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.