On March 11, 2020, the National People's Congress approved a proposal to reform Hong Kong's electoral system. Photo: Xinhua

Political tensions between China and the United Kingdom have intensified after the National People’s Congress (NPC) approved changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system on Thursday. 

The NPC on Thursday endorsed a proposal to change Hong Kong’s election system, at the conclusion of its seven-day annual plenary session in Beijing, Xinhua reported. The plan was approved by the NPC with 2,895 members voting for, no one against, and one abstention.

“This is the latest step by Beijing to hollow out the space for democratic debate in Hong Kong, contrary to the promises made by China itself,” British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab says Beijing is hollowing out democratic debate in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

“This can only further undermine confidence and trust in China living up to its international responsibilities and legal obligations, as a leading member of the international community.”

On Wednesday, UK Foreign Office minister Nigel Adams told lawmakers that the proposed changes would be a further attack on Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms. He said he could not speculate on Magnitsky-style sanctions against individuals over China’s actions in Hong Kong, but said that such measures remain under very close review.

Yang Xiaoguang, the Chinese embassy’s charges d’affaires, told the BBC that China was willing to safeguard its interest at any cost.

“Don’t underestimate our strong will to defend our interests, as well as our dignity,” Yang said.

Last week, Caroline Wilson, Britain’s ambassador to Beijing, posted a Chinese article on WeChat to defend recent international media coverage on China. She said foreign journalists who criticized the Chinese government were acting in good faith and playing an active role in monitoring government action.

On Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry said it had summoned Britain’s ambassador to Beijing for Wilson’s “inappropriate” article.

Political tensions between China and Britain have been rising for the past few months due to issues related to Hong Kong, Xinjiang and press freedom.

On January 31, the UK government launched a five-year visa scheme that would grant citizenship to the British National (Overseas) status holders and their dependents, which amounted to 5.4 million, or 72% of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million population. On January 29, Beijing announced it would no longer recognize the BNO passport as a valid travel and identity document.

Electoral changes

According to the proposed electoral changes, the number of seats on the Election Committee that selects the chief executive will increase from 1,200 members to 1,500 from various sectors. The 300 new seats will be categorized as the fifth sector in the committee and filled with representatives of pro-Beijing groups, Xinhua reported.

The existing four sectors in the committee are the industrial, commercial and financial sector; the professions; labor, social services, religious and others; and the politicians. 

Chief executive candidates will be nominated by at least 188 members of the Election Committee, among whom the number of members of each sector should be not less than 15.

The Election Committee makes its choice by a simple majority in a secret ballot on a one-person-one-vote basis.

The Legislative Council in Hong Kong. Photo: legco.gov.hk

The proposal said Legco would be expanded from 70 to 90 members in each term. It did not say how many of them would be selected by the Election Committee.

Prior to this, some pro-establishment people suggested that the Election Committee, the functional constituency and the general election would have 30 seats each in the 90-seat LegCo. However, others said the Election Committee and the general election should have 40 and 20 seats respectively.

It was said that the matter would be decided by the standing committee of the NPC later this month.

Besides, a committee will be set up to review and confirm the qualifications of candidates for the Election Committee, the chief executive and the LegCo polls. The Xinhua report did not elaborate on the nomination requirements for LegCo candidates.

On Thursday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the Hong Kong government would explain to the public about the necessity and urgency of the electoral changes, as well as the firm legal foundation of the NPC decision. Lam said after the NPC standing committee approved the amendment of the Annex I & II of the Basic Law, the Hong Kong government would amend the local law as soon as possible.

The expansion of the Election Committee’s functions and the increase in the number of seats in LegCo and the Election Committee would help achieve a balanced representation from different sectors and ensure the quality of democracy for Hong Kong residents, the central government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong said.

By refining the electoral system, Hong Kong would be able to get out of the long-existing “political swamp” and focus on resolving its deep-rooted problems, it said.

The deputy directors of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), including Zhang Xiaoming, Song Zhe and Huang Liuquan, will soon visit Hong Kong to meet the pro-establishment camp and listen to their opinions about the proposed changes.

Hong Kong issues are expected to be one of the agenda items in a meeting on March 18 between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Alaska. The meeting will follow Blinken’s first overseas trip to Japan and South Korea and mark the first high-level in-person contact between China and the US under the Biden administration.

Last month, Blinken told Yang in a phone call that the US would stand up for human rights and democratic values in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. He also pressed China to condemn the military coup in Myanmar and reaffirmed that Washington would work with allies to hold China accountable for efforts to threaten the stability of the Indo-Pacific, including across the Taiwan Strait.

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