By Jessie Pang and Joyce Zhou
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s legislature unanimously voted on Thursday to overhaul district level elections by drastically reducing directly elected seats, a move critics said removed some of the last vestiges of democratic freedoms in the China-ruled city.
Under the amendment bill, only 88 seats would be directly elected by the public, down from 452 seats in an election that saw a landslide victory by the democracy camp in 2019. The number of overall seats would also be reduced from 479 to 470.
The bill will further stifle the remaining democratic opposition in Hong Kong, with a China-imposed national security law having already led to the arrests of former lawmakers and district councilors and the disbandment of several democratic political parties, including the Civic Party.
Following months of anti-government protests in 2019, China imposed a national security law in 2020 to criminalise what it considers subversion, secessionism, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with penalties of up to life imprisonment.
Lemon Wong, the vice chairperson of Tuen Mun District Council and one of the few remaining democrats told Reuters that the changes meant “the pro-democracy camp are obviously gone in the election”.
“I will try my best to enjoy the remaining six months of my career as a councilor, because it would be difficult to have a next time,” Wong said.
Candidates who want to run in the election will need to pass a national security background check and secure at least three nominations from several committees, effectively barring most opposition democracy advocates from running.
Although district councils are mainly focused on community-level issues, such as street hygiene and bus stops, Beijing and Hong Kong authorities say they want to ensure only “patriots” can run in the upcoming district council election.
The city leader, John Lee, said in May that they “must plug all the loopholes in the system to prevent the District Councils from becoming a platform for black riots, Hong Kong independence and mutual destruction”.
For the remaining seats not contested, 40 percent would be appointed by the city leader and 27 ex-officio seats would remain. Another 40 percent would be elected within committees in each district encompassing issues such as crime and fire safety, with such committee members chosen by a senior Hong Kong government official.
China had promised universal suffrage as an ultimate goal for Hong Kong in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Pro-democracy politicians won 388 out of 452 district council seats during the last district council election in 2019, taking almost ninety percent of the seats and humiliating the pro-Beijing camp.
(Reporting by Jessie Pang and Joyce Zhou; Editing by James Pomfret and Michael Perry)
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