Hong Kong changes electoral law, reduces direct public vote

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong’s legislature on Thursday passed a bill amending electoral laws that drastically reduces the public’s ability to vote and increases the number of pro-Beijing lawmakers making decisions for the city.

The new law empowers the city’s national security department to check the backgrounds of potential candidates for public office and a sets up a new committee to ensure candidates are “patriotic.”

The number of seats in Hong Kong’s legislature will be expanded to 90, with 40 of them elected by a largely pro-Beijing election committee. The number of legislators elected directly by Hong Kong voters will be cut to 20, from the previous 35.

The bill, passed by a 40-2 vote, was met with little opposition, as most of the legislators are largely pro-Beijing. Their pro-democracy colleagues resigned en masse last year in protest over the ousting of four lawmakers deemed to be insufficiently loyal to Beijing.

Pro-Beijing lawmakers lauded the bill during the debate on Wednesday and Thursday, saying that reforms would prevent those not loyal to Hong Kong from running for office.

Some pointed out that multiple bills that impact people’s livelihoods have been passed with more ease this year compared to in 2020, when pro-democracy lawmakers would at times filibuster or behave disruptively during meetings to stall the passage of bills that they disagreed with.

Lo Kin-hei, the chairman of Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy party, said that the party was “unhappy” with the decision to pass the bill.

“We are disappointed with the way that the government is changing the electoral system, because we can see that the representation of the people from Hong Kong in the Legislative Council or in the institution as a whole is much less than before, so this is not something which is good for Hong Kong,” said Lo.

He said his Democratic Party had not yet decided if they would take part in legislative elections in December.

The changes to Hong Kong’s elections come as Beijing further tightens control over the semi-autonomous city that saw months of anti-government protest and political strife in 2019.

Authorities have arrested and charged most of the city’s outspoken pro-democracy advocates, such as Joshua Wong, who was a student leader of 2014 protests, as well as media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who founded the Apple Daily newspaper.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement called on Hong Kong authorities to drop charges filed against people “merely for standing for election or for expressing dissenting views.”

Blinken also criticized China and Hong Kong authorities over the election law amendments, saying they kept people in Hong Kong from “meaningfully participating in their own governance and having their voices heard.”

China’s rubber-stamp parliament in March endorsed changes to the city’s electoral system, which then led to Hong Kong’s proposals.

They are the latest in a string of moves to ensure people elected to office or serving the city are loyal to Beijing. An amendment the legislature approved earlier this month requires the city’s over 400 district councilors — who mainly deal with municipal matters — to take an oath pledging loyalty to Hong Kong and to upholding its mini-constitution.

The oath was previously required only of legislators and government officials such as the chief executive.

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