Next decade in Hong Kong holds little hope of political change, as Basic Law amendments sideline local government, pro-Beijing heavyweights say

Lilian Cheng
·7-min read

Beijing’s massive shake-up of the Hong Kong electoral system is likely to remain in place for at least the next decade, as new amendments to the city’s mini-constitution have left no room for the local government to manoeuvre, according to several pro-establishment heavyweights.

A Post review of the two new Basic Law annexes shows that the local government’s authority to initiate political reform has been eliminated through the removal of the so-called five-step process for changing election procedures, with the power now solely in the hands of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee.

Concrete details such as the precise allocation of Legislative Council seats have also been specifically spelled out for the first time in history.

Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.

Critics have argued the changes to the city’s mini-constitution reflect Beijing’s determination to take complete control of the city’s political system.

The NPC Standing Committee on Tuesday passed a sweeping proposal that radically overhauled Hong Kong’s electoral system.

The number of lawmakers elected to the Legislative Council by the general public was slashed to the lowest proportion since the city’s return to Chinese rule in 1997, while the Beijing-controlled Election Committee was empowered to both field representatives of its own to the legislature and nominate those from outside their ranks.

A vetting committee comprising principal officials was also mandated to screen out candidates deemed “unpatriotic” with the assistance from the police national security unit. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s committee for safeguarding national security will play an intermediary role between the two.

But a closer examination of the old and new annexes 1 and 2 of the Basic Law, which stipulate the rules for the chief executive and Legco elections, respectively, reveals that some clauses which once granted autonomy or power to the city’s administration are gone. Among them is the five-step process.

Power to effect change in Hong Kong’s electoral system is now out of the hands of lawmakers at the Legislative Council. Photo: May Tse
Power to effect change in Hong Kong’s electoral system is now out of the hands of lawmakers at the Legislative Council. Photo: May Tse

The city’s path for political change was laid out clearly in the two annexes after the handover. Initially, any changes to how the chief executive or Legco representatives were elected entailed a three-step process: the endorsement of changes by a two-thirds majority of Legco, the consent of the chief executive, and approval by the NPC Standing Committee in Beijing.

The procedure was controversially amended in 2007 by the standing committee, adding the requirements that the chief executive first seek approval from Beijing, then be granted permission to proceed before embarking on any changes.

But now, the five-step process has been replaced by an article stating that only the NPC Standing Committee has the power to amend the electoral system, changes that need no approval from the city’s legislature.

Zhang Yong, deputy head of the committee’s Commission for Legislative Affairs, had pledged earlier that the body would “solicit opinions from the Hong Kong public” before making any changes in the future.

These amendments clearly prove Beijing is leaving no room for the local government to make changes

Ivan Choy, political scientist at Chinese University

“The central government used to respect the ‘one country, two system’ principle, and would allow the local government to be in charge of electoral reforms, to avoid over-intervention in local politics,” said Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political scientist at Chinese University.

“But these amendments clearly prove Beijing is leaving no room for the local government to make changes, as it cares about national security the most, and has little confidence in the government or Legco, even if most of these people are ‘patriots’.”

But Basic Law Committee member Albert Chen Hung-yee, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said circumstances had changed since the original annexes were drafted more than 30 years ago.

“The central authorities now believe they should take a more active role in determining the reform of the electoral system in [Hong Kong]. The purposes include, for example, providing institutional safeguards for the principles of ‘patriots ruling Hong Kong’ and ‘executive-led government’,” he told the Post.

“Experience has shown that it was difficult for the five-step process to work,” he added, referring to the repeated failed attempts at reform over the past two decades, notably in 2005 and 2010.

Many bodies with new-found influence after electoral shake-up are linked to, if not controlled by, Beijing

“Having been relieved of the responsibility for political reform and moving towards universal suffrage, the chief executive can focus on the work of developing the city’s economy and improving people’s livelihood,” he said.

“It essentially means the power to initiate now lies entirely with Beijing.”

Another major change to the annexes involves adding clear and concrete details about how many seats and sectors are allocated in the Election Committee and Legco. For instance, it has been spelled out that more than 400 seats in the now 1,500-strong Election Committee must be filled by mainland-affiliated bodies, mainland enterprises in the city, or groups with other mainland ties.

In the two decades since the handover, the delimitation of the various sectors, including which groups were eligible and the number of lawmakers returned from each, was prescribed by Hong Kong electoral law and those groupings could be amended locally.

Choy, of Chinese University, said the latest changes left no room for the Hong Kong government or legislature to suggest local amendments that would change the number of seats in different sectors.

The central government has planned a new system for the city that will not need improvements every few years. This is once and for all

Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole delegate to the NPC

“The Hong Kong government will have no say on how these seats are distributed. However, the central government has to amend the Basic Law in the future whenever they would like to reallocate the seats and sectors,” he said, warning that repeated changes would have the effect of undermining the mini-constitution’s authority.

But Tam Yiu-chung, the city’s sole delegate to the NPC, argued the central government’s latest moves would bring stability to the city, and that the political system would have no need for amendments in the coming years.

“The central government has planned a new system for the city that will not need improvements every few years. This is once and for all,” he added.

Will Hong Kong’s new post of chief convenor of Election Committee create another power centre?

Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the semi-official think tank the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, agreed Hong Kong’s new electoral system could last for more than a decade, adding Beijing hoped spelling the changes out in the Basic Law would help the public accept the new reality was here to stay.

“This also demonstrates the leading status of the central government,” he said. “It shows the public this system will not be easily changed in just a few years’ time, as these articles are written in the Basic Law now.

“Political reform is not a topic for discussion in the near future.”

Chief Executive Lam on Wednesday argued the overhaul had actually paved the way for the city to move towards universal suffrage, but made it clear it would not happen during her term, which will end next year.

One more clause was also included in the latest overhaul, stating that members of the Election Committee must be Hong Kong permanent residents.

Elaborating on this point, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang Kwok-wai told a Wednesday Legco meeting that while foreign passport holders could be members of the Election Committee, they could not take one of the committee’s dedicated seats in Legco.

“But even if there was no nationality requirement, would that mean the person doesn’t have to be a patriot? Of course, some requirements of loyalty are still needed in the selection process,” he added.


More from South China Morning Post:

This article Next decade in Hong Kong holds little hope of political change, as Basic Law amendments sideline local government, pro-Beijing heavyweights say first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2021.