China’s sweeping overhaul of Hong Kong’s political system amounts to a “major regression” of democracy and Hongkongers now feel their opinion is no longer respected, according to a leading analyst.

Ma Ngok, associate professor of Hong Kong politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told HKFP the proposed amendments for “improving” the city’s elections also violate major principles of accountability.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam (centre) and other government officials meet the press on April 13, 2021. Photo: GovHK.

Ma noted that the proportion of directly elected seats in the legislature will hit a “historic low” after the revamp, as the standing committee of China’s top legislature decided last month that only 20 out of 90 lawmakers will be returned by geographical constituencies compared to 35 out of 70 currently.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam unveiled the government’s bill to implement the electoral overhaul on Tuesday afternoon. The 765-page document covers draft amendments to local electoral laws for implementing Beijing’s revision of Annex I and II of the Basic Law, as well as other changes suggested by the Hong Kong government.

Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang completed the first and second reading of the bill in the Legislative Council (LegCo) on Wednesday. It was sent to a Bills Committee for scrutiny, as the government strives to have it approved by the end of May.

Vetting committee from the executive branch

Under the overhaul, a Candidate Eligibility Review Committee will be formed to assess whether candidates for the Election Committee, for the chief executive post and for LegCo would uphold the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, and swear allegiance to the HKSAR.

Ma Ngok. Photo: CUHK.

Lam revealed on Tuesday that she would appoint a handful of principal officials to be the chairperson and members of the committee. They will validate the eligibility of a candidate based on findings from the police national security unit and recommendations by the Committee for Safeguarding National Security of the HKSAR.

Ma said it was “ridiculous” for the executive branch to screen candidates for the legislative branch. He said he believes the national security bureau would be the one to “call the shots” on candidacies.

“They actually have total control on who will be allowed to serve in the legislature. This violates major principles of accountability. It won’t be considered as any kind of free election anymore,” Ma told HKFP on Tuesday.

Lam said the government would later add some “members of society” to the review committee after comments that the current composition lacked credibility. She did not give further details.

Legislative Council. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Aside from the vetting process, candidates for LegCo and for chief executive will have to secure nominations from an expanded 1,500-member Election Committee. The committee’s composition will be changed to exclude pan-democrat district councillors and accommodate many more people with mainland ties.

“I think Beijing tried to make it ultra-safe. But in the end, this will not make the election very meaningful,” Ma said.

High risks for democrats

Under the proposed screening mechanism, Ma said pro-democracy politicians would face significant risks if they choose to stand in an election. The overhaul has “completely changed the considerations about running,” he said.

“One year ago, people thought the worst that you could get was disqualification. Now you may end up in jail, because if some investigation discovers that you are in breach of the national security law, you are in big trouble,” said the expert on elections.

Photo: GovHK.

A controversial national security law imposed by Beijing on the city last June outlaws secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts. Offences carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Ma said young politicians from the pro-democracy camp would find it difficult to take part in future elections, as many high-profile mature politicians have been detained under the security law.

“The potential price is much higher compared to what it was in the past,” he said.

Reflecting on the electoral overhaul as a whole, Ma said he sees it as a “major regression in terms of democracy.” He said while Hong Kong had a limited election in the past, where citizens would select half of the members of the legislature, it was still “an important part of the public opinion mechanism” in the semi-autonomous region.

(From left to right) Ng Kin-wai, Jimmy Sham, Lawrence Lau, Henry Wong, Kwok Ka-ki, Lee Yue-shun, Lam Cheuk-ting, Sam Cheung and Ray Chan getting on a Correctional Services Department vehicle on March 3, 2021. They are among a group of 47 democrats charged with “subversion” under the national security law. Photo: Studio Incendo.

In future only 22 per cent of LegCo’s seats will be directly elected. The screening mechanisms will also exclude a substantial part of the political spectrum, Ma said, as he predicted localists would not be allowed to stand.

“The weight of people’s vote is very much diminished… it makes the system much less representative. It will serve as a major discouragement for voters to participate,” he said.

Although Hong Kong had not been a full democracy, Ma said Hongkongers had enjoyed “substantial freedom” when they could elect at least half of their lawmakers.

But such rights and freedom seemed to have been taken away in the space of one year, he said, with the enactment of the national security law and the electoral changes.

“The whole process makes Hong Kong people feel that public opinion is no longer respected. They will not play an important role in the future policy-making process,” Ma said.

Geographical constituencies redrawn

Under the draft bill, the current five geographical constituencies for LegCo election will be redrawn into ten areas. Hong Kong Island will be divided into East and West, with the Outlying Islands being regrouped into the latter.

File Photo: May James/HKFP.

Kowloon will have three constituencies, while the New Territories will have five, with Yuen Long and Sha Tin being split into two halves, respectively. Voters in each area will elect two legislators in a first-past-the-post system.

Ma described the delineation of the ten geographical constituencies as “strange and kind of arbitrary.” He questioned why the Islands would be combined with Hong Kong Island West, as the two areas have different demographics, social class and types of housing.

“It also casts doubts on why it is not the Electoral Affairs Commission’s job,” said Ma, referring to the independent statutory body that used to hold extensive consultations when it had to redraw constituency boundaries.

Asked whether the new constituencies amounted to gerrymandering, the political analyst said the new perimeters of the constituencies matter very little.

Legislative Council. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“The key is what democrats will still run and who will be allowed to run. The constituency boundaries actually don’t matter that much,” he said.

Binomial system

Hong Kong’s existing proportional representation electoral system will be scrapped and replaced by a binomial system with two legislative seats per district. Ma said such a system was “very seldom adopted” in Western democracies but was previously used in Chile.

He said the new voting system will be a kind of single non-transferable vote (SNTV), which was used in Japan and Taiwan in the 1990s. But the number of seats concerned there was larger, which gave room for smaller political parties to land some seats.

In the case of Hong Kong, since there are only two seats per area up for grabs, “it would be rather difficult for small parties or independent candidates to win,” Ma said. “I don’t see any advantages [in adopting the new system].”

Former localist leader Edward Leung Tin-kei, who contested the 2016 New Territories East Legislative Council by-election. Photo: Chantal Yuen/HKFP.

The scholar said some research suggested that the SNTV system may help screen out extremist or radical candidates. But Hong Kong’s electoral revamp already included multiple layers of screening.

“There is no point in using the electoral formula to try to screen out the small parties, because extremists can’t get in anyway,” Ma said.

Possible election strategies

Ma predicted that the two seats in each district would be split between the pro-establishment camp and pro-democracy camp, assuming democrats are allowed to stand in the polls.

He predicted that some pro-Beijing legislators who won seats in the current LegCo by direct election would need to switch tracks and obtain their spots in the legislature through the restructured Election Committee.

“There will be a grand scale of coordination on the pro-Beijing side,” said the academic.

DAB lawmakers photographed on November 25, 2020. Photo: Legislative Council, via Flickr.

The election committee, which currently only selects the chief executive, will gain sweeping powers to nominate legislative candidates and will itself elect 40 people to LegCo.

The election for members of the Election Committee will be held on September 19. The LegCo polls – initially postponed from September 2020 for at least a year on the grounds of anti-pandemic precautions – will be delayed again to December 19 this year, while the chief executive election will take place on March 22 next year.

Asked how many seats the pro-democracy camp may secure in the upcoming LegCo election, Ma said it would depend on who will be willing to take part. He questioned what programmes democrats can still propose that will not be deemed as infringing the security legislation.

“It [the programme] can be watered down to such a level that they would not be considered democrats anymore. Then they will only win a very small amount of votes of the pro-democracy supporters,” Ma said.

Significance of voter turnout

Lam said on Tuesday that the success of an election could not be determined solely by the turnout.

Hong Kong voters wait in line outside a polling station in Lek Yuen Estate, Shatin during the 2019 District Council election. Photo: May James/HKFP.

“How many voters cast their ballots in each public election is affected by many factors. [We] should not simply think a high voter turnout means an election is fair, just or successful,” Lam said.

The government has proposed to criminalise any “open incitement” urging people not to vote or to cast blank or invalid ballots, with a penalty of up to three years behind bars.

Ma said voter turnout was a universal indicator of public satisfaction with the electoral system. He said the international media was likely to use the 71 per cent rate in the 2019 District Council elections – where pro-democracy candidates claimed a landslide victory – as a benchmark for the upcoming polls.

“I think the whole world sees the turnout rate as the people’s verdict on the system. If you are trying to perfect the electoral system, people should be happy and happily participate in it,” he said.

Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.