The Hindu Explains | How will China’s new election law impact Hong Kong’s autonomy?

How does the new National People’s Congress amendment change Hong Kong’s political system? How will the “one country, two systems” model be impacted?

The story so far: The National People’s Congress (NPC) of China, the ceremonial legislature in Beijing, on March 11 approved what it called “a decision on improving Hong Kong’s electoral system”. This paves the way for sweeping changes in how Hong Kong, the Special Administrative Region (SAR) that has been ruled under the “one country, two systems” model since its return to China in 1997, chooses its leaders. Wang Chen, Vice-Chairman of the NPC Standing Committee, said the change was being passed to plug “clear loopholes and deficiencies which the anti-China, destabilising elements jumped on to take into their hands the power to administer the HKSAR”, in a reference to the 2019 pro-democracy protests that roiled the city. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition groups have seen the change as another move that diminishes the space for dissent and erodes freedoms guaranteed previously under the terms of the 1997 handover.

How does the new NPC amendment change Hong Kong’s political system?

The NPC amendment essentially gives Beijing-appointed politicians greater power in running the HKSAR’s politics. Currently, 35 of the 70 members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council are directly elected through “geographical constituencies”, while 35 are nominated from “functional constituencies” (referring to a range of special interest groups that are broadly pro-establishment). Now, the size of the Legislative Council will be expanded to 90, with the additional 20 members joining the 35 others who are nominated, thus reducing the share of directly elected representatives. The amendment also bestows greater power on a newly expanded Election Committee of 1,500 nominated members, up from 1,200 previously. The 300 new members will include Hong Kong’s representatives to the NPC (the legislature) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (the upper house), who are chosen by Beijing. The committee, which has in the past been responsible for choosing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, will now also choose the additional Legislative Council members.

Also read | China defying Hong Kong joint treaty: U.K.

Perhaps the most controversial change is the setting up of a new “candidate qualification review committee”, which, the NPC said, “shall be responsible for reviewing and confirming” the qualifications of candidates for Election Committee members, the Chief Executive, and Legislative Council members. This committee can vet any candidate and disqualify them if it deems they are not “patriots”, as part of a new push by Beijing to ensure “the administration of Hong Kong by Hong Kong people with patriots as the main body”, an evolution of the post-1997 “administration of Hong Kong by Hong Kong people” idea.

How will the “one country, two systems” model be impacted?

Under the Basic Law — the Constitution that has governed Hong Kong since 1997 — the SAR is a part of China but enjoys “a high degree of autonomy” and “executive, legislative and independent judicial power”, except in foreign policy and defence. It also says “the socialist system and policies shall not be practised” in Hong Kong for 50 years.

The amendment is the second major recent legislative change that has been seen by the opposition in Hong Kong as undermining this autonomy. In 2020, as a response to the 2019 protests, China passed a new national security law that lists penalties for “subversion”. Earlier this year, as many as 47 pro-democracy leaders were arrested under the new law after organising an informal primary election among pro-democracy parties. If Hong Kong’s pro-democracy parties are concerned about the “two systems” part of the formula, Beijing is now emphasising the importance of “one country”. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, said on March 11 that ensuring political offices were filled by “patriots” was required to safeguard “national security and sovereignty” and to “solve the problem of the LegCo [Legislative Council] making everything political in recent years” and “internal rifts that have torn Hong Kong apart”.

Also read | Hong Kong move a ‘combination of punches’ to end chaos: China

What lies ahead?

With the national security law and the new electoral changes, the space for the pro-democracy opposition in Hong Kong has been drastically reduced. Hong Kong without a noisy opposition will mean a very different Hong Kong from what the past 24 years have seen. The city became a key gateway for foreign companies particularly because of its independent judicial system that distinguished it from the mainland. It still remains a key gateway for investment, even though in 2018 its GDP was surpassed by Shenzhen.

Beijing’s bet is that China’s market may remain a big enough draw to allay broader concerns about the changes sweeping through the SAR. If the direction of its politics seems clear, its economic future appears less so.

This story is available exclusively to The Hindu subscribers only.

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