The influence of Hong Kong’s legal sector is being “diluted” in the Election Committee, said a legislative councillor on Wednesday, as Beijing’s election overhaul bill was considered at the legislature for the first time.

The bill on the proposed overhaul to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Election Committee, and Legislative Council elections was discussed on Wednesday. Under the proposed amendments, individuals in the legal sector will no longer have votes.

electoral overhaul election
A government banner promoting the electoral overhaul, photographed outside the MacPherson Playground in Mong Kok. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Instead, 30 organisations approved by the government will hold single “corporate votes” in the election. In 2020, there were a total of 7,453 people registered as voters in the legal subcommittee.

Many of the 30 approved organisations have pro-Beijing backgrounds, including the Small and Medium Law Firms Association of Hong Kong, led by National People’s Congress delegate Maggie Chan, the International Probono Legal Services Association founded by lawmaker Junius Ho, and the Global Chinese-speaking Lawyers’ Association, with solicitor Ambrose Lam as its president.

Of the 30 seats in the legal subsector, only half will be voted by the 30 organisations, six of the other seats will be occupied by members of the Committee for the Basic Law, and the remaining nine seats will be nominated by Hong Kong delegates of the China Law Society.

Paul Tse
Paul Tse. File photo: LegCo.

Legislative councillor and solicitor Paul Tse said that while he was “surprised” at the how the influence of the local legal sector was being reduced: “It is a fact that the influence of the local legal sector is diluted, but whether this is a good thing or not, it is a matter of perspective,” Tse told HKFP. “It seems that there are a lot of voices which think that our legal sector, especially the Bar Association, is overly politicised.”

“Indeed, some new elements [in the election committee] are a bit strange to me, such as the China Law Society…” said the lawmaker. “I’m a bit surprised, but I understand the underlying reason. I just hope that we will not overcorrect… or else we will lose a voice that is worth listening to.”

The election revamp will reduce democratic representation in the city’s legislature and add several layers of vetting for potential candidates, including by the police. The plan has been deemed an “improvement” by the authorities but slammed by critics as it would make it near-impossible for democrats to run.

‘Very disappointed’

The pro-democracy camp won all 30 seats in the 2016 Election Committee election. Following the overhaul, organisations such as the Hong Kong Bar Association and the Law Society of Hong Kong will have much less influence in the election as they each will only have one “corporate vote.”

The Bar Association had 1,595 members in 2020, while the Law Society has 10,767 members in 2021.

Stephen Char
Barrister Stephen Char.

Barrister and current member of the Election Committee Stephen Char told HKFP that he was disappointed with the drastic change to the subsector: “This is unexpected, I did not think that there would be such a radical action to diminish the voice of the legal sector,” said Char. “If you ask me, I feel very disappointed.”

When asked about his views on pro-Beijing criticism of the Bar Association, Char said he “respectfully disagrees.”

“The Bar Association have continuously worked hard for the dignity and rights of barristers,” said Char. “Apart from that, the association is not a politicised group, it’s just that they have expressed their opinion on events that affect the development of the rule of law.”

HKFP has also reached out to Eric Cheung, the principal lecturer at University of Hong Kong’s law school and incumbent member of the Election Committee, who said that he had no comment, and that to him, “it is meaningless to study it.”

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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.