Chinese official says HK electoral changes will "protect" international role

FILE PHOTO: Chinese and Hong Kong flags flutter outside West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts as supporters of pro-democracy activists queue up for a court hearing over charges related to national security, in Hong Kong, China March 1, 2021. REUTERS/Lam Yik

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Beijing's plans to change Hong Kong's electoral system will protect the city's international role, a senior Chinese official said on Tuesday, as critics decry the move as an end of democratic hopes in the former British colony.

Deputy Commissioner of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong Song Ru'an told reporters the proposed changes were an internal matter for China and were needed to "close obvious loopholes and deficiencies" in the city's political system.

China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), is expected to approve on Thursday a resolution that will reduce democratic representation in Hong Kong institutions and vet any candidates for "patriotism".

The measures will tweak the size and composition of Hong Kong's legislature and the electoral committee selecting the chief executive further in favour of pro-Beijing figures. The committee will also be given powers to select many legislators.

It was "solely China’s internal affair on how to design and improve the system," Song said, adding "destabilising forces" had taken advantage of "loopholes" in the past.

Critics have decried Beijing's moves as the end of democratic dreams in the former British colony, whose mini-constitution states universal suffrage as its goal.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise of wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms that pro-democracy activists, who brought parts of the city to frequent halts in sometimes violent protests in 2019, say are being whittled away by Communist Party rulers in Beijing.

Only half of its legislature is currently picked through democratic vote, a proportion which will shrink under the new system. Other seats in the legislature and the electoral committee taken by lower-level, democratically elected district council officials, are expected to be scrapped.

The changes to the electoral system follow a series of moves by Beijing to reassert its control over China's most restive city and set it on an increasingly authoritarian path.

China imposed a sweeping national security law in June 2020 and authorities have since arrested most high-profile opposition politicians and activists for offences under the new law or related to the 2019 protests.

Song said China wanted to create a new "democratic" electoral system, which will "fully respect" the public's democratic rights. He did not elaborate.

(Reporting by James Pomfret, writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Michael Perry)

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