Hong Kong Electoral Downgrade Slashes Elected Share of Legislature, Puts Candidate Vetting Above Law

On the eve of Hong Kong’s handover in 1997, Jiang Zemin famously held up a piece of calligraphy that declared: “Hong Kong’s tomorrow will be better.” Article 68 of the city’s Basic Law states that its ultimate aim is the election of all members of the legislature by universal suffrage. Despite setbacks, for years that ethos of continued progress guided Hong Kong’s electoral system forward in small but tangible ways, as the Legislative Council (Legco) became incrementally more democratic with successive reforms.

23 years later, that ethos guides the system no longer. On Tuesday, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) unanimously voted for sweeping changes to Hong Kong’s election mechanism, in effect downgrading it from an election system to a selection system with extra steps.

Among many other changes, the proportion of seats in Legco directly elected by Hong Kong residents has been slashed from 50% to 22%. New seats have been handed to the 1,500 person Election Committee and additional corporate interests. Mainland companies in Hong Kong, including state owned enterprises, now have a dedicated seat in the legislature. Democratically elected district councillors have been booted from the Election Committee, which chooses the Chief Executive, replaced by government-selected neighborhood groups. The national security police, along with the Chief Executive and Beijing’s representative to the city, will vet all election candidates—including for the Chief Executive position itself—in secret deliberations that are explicitly immune from judicial oversight.

For South Morning Post, Jeffie Lam, Lilian Cheng, Natalie Wong, and Gary Cheung reported on key changes to the Legislative Council:

Key points:

– Election Committee will enjoy biggest share of Legislative Council seats with 40, while 30 seats go to the trade-based functional constituencies, leaving the directly elected geographical constituencies with just 20, down from 35

– First-ever chief convenor will assume top role on Election Committee, must hold state leadership position to qualify

[…] – Legco hopefuls must now secure nominations from each of the five sectors of the Election Committee, making it extremely difficult for opposition candidates to run

[…] – The vetting committee will pick candidates based on information provided by police’s national security unit, and no judicial review or appeal of the decision will be allowed [Source]

Under the new arrangements, anybody hoping to run for Chief Executive or for Legco must obtain a minimum number of nominations from each of the five sectors of the 1,500 person Election Committee, a closed committee comprised of overwhelmingly pro-Beijing interests. A newly added fifth sector is comprised of “patriotic groups” and members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), meaning that candidate hopefuls would need to receive the blessing of at least two delegates closely tied to Beijing.

After candidates secure the requisite nominations from Election Committee members, they then face a triple vetting procedure. Candidates for Chief Executive, the Election Committee, and the Legislative Council must go through three vetting processes, all of which are exempt from judicial oversight or appeal, operating in effect above the law. Candidates would be reviewed first by the national security police, second by the city’s national security leadership committee, and third by a newly created vetting committee.

For Hong Kong Free Press, Selina Cheng explained the three vetting steps that would determine whether a candidate is permitted to run:

After potential candidates gain the minimum amount of nominations required, the national security unit of the Hong Kong police will conduct an initial screening of individuals hoping to run in the city’s top-level elections for the office of chief executive, the chief executive election committee and the legislature, according to the new version of the Basic Law’s annexes 1 and 2 handed down by Beijing on Tuesday.

[…] Findings from the police review will be handed to the city’s national security committee. The committee will determine whether the potential candidates support the Basic Law and are loyal to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

[…] The national security committee is headed by the city’s Chief Executive and has China Liaison Office Director Luo Huining as its advisor. Other than the top three secretaries of the government and the director the Chief Executive’s Office, the remaining five members of the committee are the heads of the city’s security forces, including the secretary for security, the police commissioner, head of national security police, and customs.

[…] It will submit a recommendation document to the election vetting committee, before the latter finally approves their candidacy in accordance with the recommendation. The candidates are then allowed to run in Hong Kong’s elections. [Source]

Aside from making it harder for opposition candidates to run for office, the changes also reduce the number of seats that could conceivably be filled by opposition figures. Hong Kong’s legislature has never been fully democratic, but from 1997 to 2012, successive electoral reforms gradually increased the proportion of its 70 seats directly elected by Hong Kong voters to half. Now, that proportion will fall to less than a quarter. Remaining seats will be filled by functional constituencies–professional special interest groups from various industry sub-sectors such as finance, medical, legal etc.–and the tightly controlled Election Committee.

Even functional constituencies that have historically leant pro-democracy have had their influence diluted. Medical and health services sub-sector seats, most recently represented by pan-democrats or independents, are being merged into one. Pro-democracy professional and civil society groups such as the Bar Association and Professional Teachers’ Union are now limited to just one single corporate vote each. The IT sub-sector seat, which has historically been reliably pro-democracy, has been replaced with a “technology and innovation” sub-sector, which will be voted in by exclusively corporate votes. Justifying the decision to disenfranchise IT workers, Carrie Lam said that the industry lacked a registration system for practitioners and corporate voting would return the “best talents.”

It is perhaps ironic that the IT sector’s influence is to be watered down, as the new electoral process is an infinite loop. As AFP’s Xinqi Su pointed out using an annotated flow chart of the new electoral system, the end result of the changes is that the Chief Executive is now tasked with vetting candidates for the position of Chief Executive, including their own competitors or successors. Local media outlet Stand News reported that Hong Kong University Professor Joseph Chan described the arrangement as an “absurdity.” Carrie Lam defended the arrangement, saying that she could not single-handedly decide eligibility, and that “the public can judge whether the decision has been made rightly or wrongly,” despite the decision being immune to formal challenge.

For district councillors, Hong Kong’s lowest-level elected representatives, many of whom gained office in a sweeping victory for the pro-democracy camp in 2019, the electoral changes strip them of their already minimal political influence by booting them from the Election Committee. Hong Kong Free Press’ Kelly Ho explained the significance of the changes:

Tam also said district councillors will be ousted from the Election Committee, which increase its membership by 300, from the current 1,200. He said the move will “depoliticise” the government advisory body, preventing it from becoming a platform for “anti-China forces” to disrupt the city and paralyse the government.

Currently, 17 out of 18 district councils in Hong Kong are controlled by the pro-democracy camp, following their landslide victory in 2019. They are seen as the last opposition force left in the government, after pan-democratic lawmakers resigned en masse last November in protest to the disqualification of four of their colleagues. [Source]

Instead, unelected Area Committees, District “Fight Crime Committees,” and District “Fire Safety Committees” dominated by pro-Beijing individuals would serve on the Election Committee.

Taken together, the changes comprehensively lock out the pro-democracy camp from ever gaining an influential foothold in government. Earlier this month, Hong Kong political scientist Ma Ngok described the electoral changes as akin to “a fence, a gate, a lock, a security guard, & an infrared line.” Moreover, the restructuring puts the city’s new national security police front and center in the electoral process, directly integrating its surveillance and intelligence powers into the political process, while elevating it above judicial oversight.

In her press conference on Tuesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that the 2020 Legislative Council election, delayed to September of this year, would again be delayed until December, in order for the formation of the Election Committee to be completed first. Lam postponed the election last year citing “virus concerns,” and the postponement was approved by the NPCSC despite it contravening the Basic Law.

But within the pro-democracy camp, it is not even clear who would be available and willing to make an election run. Almost every single pro-democracy Legco hopeful is currently behind bars, pending trial on charges of subversion, for which they could face life sentences. Lo Kin-hei, chairman of the once powerful Democratic Party and one of the few remaining pan-democrats not in prison, refused to commit to running on Tuesday.

What is clear is that, nine months after the implementation of the National Security Law, democratic progress in Hong Kong is over. On Twitter, Sebastian Veg translated an op-ed by Hong Kong political scientist Ray Yep, who described the current moment as Hong Kong’s “second handover.”

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