The latest changes are part of an effort to ensure that only ‘patriots’ hold political office in the territory.
Hong Kong has cut the number of directly elected seats on its local district councils in the latest leg of an effort to ensure that only “patriots” can hold political office in the area.
Under the changes announced by Chief Executive John Lee, 80 percent of seats will be filled by people appointed by the government and all candidates must be vetted.
Lee, a former police chief who took office last year, said the reforms would “correct injustice” and that the councils elected in 2019 during the height of pro-democracy protests were “platforms of protest violence and Hong Kong independence”.
Pro-democracy politicians won a landslide victory in that election.
“Many council members refused to swear allegiance…they refused to recognize the People’s Republic of China as the sovereign state of Hong Kong,” Lee said at a news conference.
Lee announced the change weeks after China’s top affairs official in Hong Kong said the district councils could no longer fall into the hands of “anti-Chinese destabilizing forces”.
Previously, about 94 percent of the seats were elected. With Tuesday’s changes, the number of seats elected is now lower than when the district councils were created in 1982 under British colonial rule. The area was returned to Beijing in 1997.
“What is good for Hong Kong and what has happened in the past and what will happen in the future must be taken into account,” Lee said.
In 2021, Beijing revised the election process for Hong Kong’s legislature, the Legislative Council, to allow only candidates who passed the “patriotics only” vetting process by the authorities. Districts were also redrawn and the number of candidates directly elected by the public was reduced from 35 to 20.
When the elections were finally held – more than a year late – turnout was the lowest since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule.
Kenneth Chan, an expert in politics at Hong Kong Baptist University, told the AFP news agency that the change “confirms the perception that a path to democracy has ended for good”.
“It now looks like the county councilors…would simply be the echo chambers primarily serving the administration rather than channeling bottom-up views and expectations from the community level.”
China has been tightening control over Hong Kong since millions of people took to the streets in mass protests in 2019.
Initially over a controversial plan to allow extradition to the mainland, where courts have a 99 percent conviction rate, the demonstrations evolved into broader calls for democracy and turned violent at times.
The COVID-19 pandemic helped quell protests, but in June 2020 Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law that Amnesty said “decimated” Hong Kong’s freedoms.