China NPC: China set to overhaul HK electoral system

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Beijing plans to overhaul Hong Kong’s electoral system to ensure “patriots” are in charge, a senior official said.

A draft decision on the reforms will be discussed at China’s biggest political meeting of the year, which began on Friday in Beijing.

The gathering of lawmakers is called the National People’s Congress (NPC) and runs for a week.

The reforms are expected to give Beijing even more control over how the territory is governed.

It comes as 47 pro-democracy activists were charged with “subversion” under a new security law that critics say is being used by Beijing to crush dissent in the city.

The meeting typically happens in early March with nearly 3,000 delegates from all around the country – representing provinces, autonomous regions, and the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.

While in theory it is the country’s most powerful institution, in reality it is seen largely as a rubber-stamp parliament.

This means it approves plans and policies that have been decided beforehand by the central government, so we are unlikely to see any major surprises.

The NPC meeting runs in parallel to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a meeting of the most powerful political advisory body in the country. That already began on Thursday, and collectively the gatherings are referred to as the “Two Sessions”.

What do we know about the changes planned for Hong Kong?

Late on Thursday Zhang Yesui, a spokesman for the NPC, said the changes had the constitutional power to “improve” Hong Kong’s system.

Hong Kong media later reported that they would include increasing the size of an election committee to select Hong Kong’s leader from 1,200 to 1,500 and the city’s legislature from 70 to 90 seats.

Elections for the legislature would likely be delayed to September 2022, the South China Morning post reported.

On Friday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said in a work report that China would “resolutely guard against and defer” interference by external forces in Hong Kong’s affairs, according to a Reuters report.

He also reaffirmed China’s commitment to “one country, two systems”.

Hong Kong is a part of China, but has been governed under the principle of “one country, two systems”, meaning it has its own legal system and rights including free speech and freedom of press.

But many in Hong Kong and rights groups have accused China of eroding those freedoms and autonomy in recent years. There were months of violent protests in 2019.

Earlier last month, Hong Kong secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs Erick Tsang said a bill to “ensure patriots govern Hong Kong” would be tabled in March.

The announcement came after a top Beijing official signalled that changes would be made to make sure Hong Kong was run by “patriots” – a sign that China no longer intends to tolerate opposing voices.

And just last week, some 47 activists – those who were involved in an unofficial primary election last June to pick opposition candidates for 2020’s legislative polls – were charged with “subversion”.

It was the largest use yet of the controversial National Security Law, which was proposed at last year’s NPC.

Chinese and Hong Kong officials said the primary was an attempt to overthrow the government.

Until recently, Hong Kong has had a small opposition that achieved success at local elections.

“In 2019, the pan-democrats did extremely well, which was alarming to the CCP because it showed that all their negative rhetoric didn’t seem to be working,” Ian Chong, politics professor at the National University of Singapore, told BBC News.

“I think for the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), they really want to remove the voices that they don’t like to hear, so we will probably be expecting more constraints on the ability of people to stand for elections.”

What else is on the agenda?

We will also see the NPC formally approve the 14th Five-Year-Plan that was announced at the end of last year.

China is the only major economy in the world that publishes a five-year policy plan, and it has been doing so since 1953.

It will also be championing the “dual-circulation” model, where China will be spurring domestic consumption (or “internal circulation”), while catering to export markets overseas (or “external circulation”).

Benjamin Hillman, a professor at the Australian National University, told the BBC that such goals were partly driven by concerns that the US could limit China’s access to advanced technologies, like semiconductors.

Such actions, he said, “can bring companies such as Huawei to their knees, and constrain future economic growth as well as the strength of Chinese industry.”

On Friday morning, China announced that it had set its economic growth target at above 6%. Beijing did not set an economic growth target last year for the first time, as it was dealing with the economic fallout from the coronavirus.

The NPC is also expected to discuss environmental issues, including plans to make China carbon neutral by 2060.

What is the virus situation like now in China?

It’s largely under control. For the majority of people, life has gone back to normal, and China was the only major economy in the world to post growth last year.

According to Prof Chong, the “success of China in dealing with Covid” is likely to feature largely in this year’s NPC.

“Next year is when President Xi Jinping was supposed to have come up to his term limit, so I think he will probably really want to furnish his credentials…I think a lot of it will be highlighting successes under Mr Xi.”

President Xi is also likely to highlight China’s achievement in “eradicating absolute poverty” – something the country announced just last week.


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