Beijing Sends Hong Kong's Political System 'Back to The 1950s': Analysts

Families race to leave ahead of a visa deadline, while businesses express concern over possible internet censorship.
By Lau Siu Fung and Emily Chan
Beijing Sends Hong Kong's Political System 'Back to The 1950s': Analysts Hong Kong's Legislative Council is shown in session in a Nov. 25, 2020 photo.

Changes to Hong Kong's election system imposed on the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have set the city's political life back by decades, to the pre-reform colonial era in the mid-20th century, analysts said on Monday.

The rule changes mean that opposition candidates are highly unlikely to be allowed to run, but even when candidates make it into the race, they will now be chosen by a tiny number of voters compared with the previous system, RFA has learned.

The Election Committee, which was already mostly composed of members handpicked by the CCP, now also includes representatives of 28 industry and professional groups known as "functional constituencies," and the voter base for these seats has been slashed by an estimated 97 percent.

According to provisional voting registration information from the Hong Kong government, the number of registered voters in the constituencies that get to choose a member of the Election Committee has fallen by 90 percent since the last election, when the Committee only picked the chief executive.

Since the rule changes imposed by the CCP, the Committee has also been tasked with returning 40 members to the Legislative Council (LegCo).

In the education functional constituency alone, the number of registered voters is listed as just 1,700, compared with 80,000 in the previous session of the Committee.

Ivan Choy, senior politics lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), said that previously anyone in the education sector had been entitled to vote for Election Committee members. Now, however, only people "designated" by the authorities can vote in their functional constituency.

"Before, we would have more than 200,000 people taking part in these elections," Choy said. "Some said that this participation was trivial, but now we don't even have that."

"I think voters will feel even more alienated from the entire election process now, for both the chief executive and for LegCo," he said.

'No way to lose'

Choy said Beijing has set up the forthcoming election in December so that there is basically "no way for it to lose."

He said the CCP regards Hong Kong politics as "more manageable" after the changes.

Chinese and Hong Kong officials have repeatedly said that the electoral changes represent the "perfection" of the electoral system.

Chung Kim-wah, deputy chief executive of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI), confirmed Choy's assessment, saying that democracy in Hong Kong has now regressed to where it was in the middle of the 20th century.

"Personally, I don't think we're even where we were in the 1980s," Chung said. "Back then, only the District Council was elected, and then we had some indirect elections of LegCo members in the mid-1980s."

"What we have now is worse than what we had in the 1980s, with a voter base even smaller than that of the Urban Council elections back in the 1950s," he said.

The new electoral rules took effect on March 31, 2021, and prompted the U.S. State Department to say it was "deeply concerned" at the changes.

The comprehensive plans ensure that anyone standing for election to Hong Kong's legislature is a staunch CCP supporter, with all candidates to be vetted by the national security police before being allowed to stand.

The new system forces election hopefuls to run a multi-layered gauntlet of pro-CCP committees before they can appear on any ballot paper.

However, the decisions of all of those committees will hinge on approval by the national security branch of the Hong Kong Police Force, according to details published by the National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee.

There will be no right of appeal to decisions of the Candidate Eligibility Review Committee or opinions issued by the national security police.

District councilors, the last hope of any pro-democracy representation in the city, have also been removed from the Election Committee that chooses who will fill 40 of the 90 seats in LegCo and which also chooses the chief executive.

Elections pushed back

Elections to the Legislative Council (LegCo), which were previously scheduled for September 2020 and then postponed by a year, have now been pushed back to December 2021.

While 20 seats in a newly expanded 90-seat LegCo will still be returned by geographical constituencies and popular ballot, voters may only choose from among candidates pre-approved by the multi-layered vetting process, ensuring that pro-democracy politicians and rights campaigners are unlikely to make the cut.

The remaining seats will be appointed, or returned by trade, industry, and special interest groups. As with the geographical seats, all candidates must be pre-approved by national security police.

The authorities are also required to take action against anyone seeking to "undermine" the electoral system.

The State Department said in its human rights report for 2020 that the CCP has effectively "dismantled" Hong Kong's promised rights and freedoms and "severely undermined" the rights and freedoms of the city's seven million people.

Thousands leave Hong Kong

Thousands of people -- many of them families with school-age children -- have been lining up at Hong Kong International Airport to board flights to the United Kingdom ahead of a key deadline that expires on July 19, 2021, which had allowed some three million holders of British National Overseas (BNO) passport to enter the country without a visa.

Many families have told RFA as they left that their main motivation stemmed from the effect of a draconian national security law imposed on the city by the CCP from July 1, 2020 on their childrens' education.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong (AmCham), warned on Monday of a worsening business environment in the city.

"AmCham is well aware of an increasingly complicated geopolitical environment and its risks; particularly those which have evolved in recent years," the statement said.

It said the chamber had bought a new site in downtown Hong Kong to "foster dialogue, allow businesses to network, to share ideas and espouse the values of transparency, free flow of information, rule of law and good governance."

AmCham president Tara Joseph said the business community is concerned in particular that Great Firewall-style internet censorship may be in the pipeline for Hong Kong.

"One of the key attributes of Hong Kong is that you can go onto Google, you can go onto Facebook and any other platform you want versus what you can do in mainland China," Joseph told Bloomberg Television, in comments reported by government broadcaster RTHK.

"So I do think it's important for the government to recognize that and to be open and say we're going to maintain that free flow of information."

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.