Hong Kong’s political elite began selecting a powerful committee on Sunday which will choose the city’s next leader and nearly half the legislature under a new “patriots only” system imposed by Beijing.
The financial hub has never been a democracy – the source of years of protests – but a small and vocal opposition was tolerated after the city’s 1997 handover to authoritarian China.
Huge and often violent democracy rallies exploded two years ago and Beijing has responded with a crackdown and a new political system where only those deemed loyal are allowed to stand for office.
The first poll under that new system – carrying the slogan “Patriots rule Hong Kong” – took place on Sunday as members of the city’s ruling classes cast votes for a 1,500-seat Election Committee.
In December, that committee will appoint 40 of the city’s 90 legislators – 30 others will be chosen by special interest groups and just 20 will be directly elected. The following year, it will pick Hong Kong’s next Beijing-approved leader.
Beijing insists the new political system is more representative and will ensure “anti-China” elements are not allowed into office.
Critics say it leaves no room for the pro-democracy opposition, turning Hong Kong into a mirror of the authoritarian Communist Party-ruled mainland with any remaining veneer of choice removed.
“Hong Kongers are completely cut off from electoral operations,” Nathan Law, a prominent democracy leader who fled to Britain last year, said.
“All election runners will become puppet showmen under Beijing’s entire control… with no meaningful competition.”
Ted Hui, a former lawmaker who moved to Australia, said Hong Kong’s political system was now “a rubber-stamp game completely controlled by Beijing”.
“It’s more than a managed democracy. It’s an autocracy trying to pretend to be civilised,” Hui told AFP.
Under the new system, all those standing for public office must be vetted for political loyalty and cleared of being a national security threat.
Back in 2016, some 233,000 Hong Kongers were allowed to select the Election Committee.
That figure has now been trimmed to around 4,800 – 0.6 percent of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million population. Police said 6,000 officers were on standby to ensure there were no protests or disruptions.
“This is an important election although the number of people eligible to join is not large,” Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said, adding the new system would ensure “anti-China troublemakers” would no longer be able to “obstruct” the government.
The vast majority of seats in Sunday’s vote were a one-horse race, with just 364 contested. The rest will be installed ex officio or chosen by special interest groups.
As a result, the committee will be even more stacked than previously with reliable pro-Beijing votes, including loyalist lawmakers and members of national bodies as well as representatives from business, professional and religious groups.
Local media have reported that people linked to the city’s powerful business tycoon families will wield less power than previously.
China promised Hong Kong would maintain key liberties and autonomy for 50 years after its handover.
But, in the wake of the 2019 protests, Beijing has begun transforming the city into something more like the authoritarian mainland.
China’s leaders were also stung by pro-democracy candidates winning a landslide the same year in district council elections –– the city’s only bodies predominantly selected by universal suffrage.
On top of the new political system, China has also imposed a sweeping national security law that has criminalized much dissent.
Multiple opposition figures have been jailed, dozens of pro-democracy groups and outlets – including the city’s most popular newspaper – have been shuttered and tens of thousands of Hong Kongers have left the city. Others have been disqualified from public office for their political views.