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Interview: Election Changes Mark ‘Major Regression’ of Democracy in Hong Kong, Says Analyst Ma Ngok

Ma Ngok. Photo: Chinese University of Hong Kong.
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It’s “ridiculous” for the executive branch to screen candidates for the legislative branch, says Ma.

China’s sweeping overhaul of Hong Kong’s political system amounts to a “major regression” of democracy and Hongkongers now feel their opinion is no longer respected, according to a leading analyst. 

Ma Ngok, associate professor of Hong Kong politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told HKFP the proposed amendments for “improving” the city’s elections also violate major principles of accountancy.

Ma noted that the proportion of directly elected seats in the legislature will hit a “historic low” after the revamp, as the standing committee of China’s top legislature decided last month that only 20 out of 90 lawmakers will be returned by geographical constituencies compared to 35 out of 70 currently. 

Chief Executive Carrie Lam unveiled the government’s bill to implement the electoral overhaul on Tuesday afternoon. The 765-page document covers draft amendments to local electoral laws for implementing Beijing’s revision of Annex I and II of the Basic Law, as well as other changes suggested by the Hong Kong government. 

Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang completed the first and second reading of the bill in the Legislative Council (LegCo) on Wednesday. It was sent to a Bills Committee for scrutiny, as the government strives to have it approved by the end of May.

Vetting committee from the executive branch

Under the overhaul, a Candidate Eligibility Review Committee will be formed to assess whether candidates for the Election Committee, for the chief executive post and for LegCo would uphold the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, and swear allegiance to the HKSAR. 

Lam revealed on Tuesday that she would appoint a handful of principal officials to be the chairperson and members of the committee. They will validate the eligibility of a candidate based on findings from the police national security unit and recommendations by the Committee for Safeguarding National Security of the HKSAR. 

Ma said it was “ridiculous” for the executive branch to screen candidates for the legislative branch. He said he believes the national security bureau would be the one to “call the shots” on candidacies. 

“They actually have total control on who will be allowed to serve in the legislature. This violates major principles of accountability. It won’t be considered as any kind of free election anymore,” Ma told HKFP on Tuesday.

Lam said the government would later add some “members of society” to the review committee after comments that the current composition lacked credibility. She did not give further details.

Aside from the vetting process, candidates for LegCo and for chief executive will have to secure nominations from an expanded 1,500-member Election Committee. The committee’s composition will be changed to exclude pan-democrat district councillors and accommodate many more people with mainland ties.

“I think Beijing tried to make it ultra-safe. But in the end, this will not make the election very meaningful,” Ma said. 

High risks for democrats

Under the proposed screening mechanism, Ma said pro-democracy politicians would face significant risks if they choose to stand in an election. The overhaul has “completely changed the considerations about running,” he said.

“One year ago, people thought the worst that you could get was disqualification. Now you may end up in jail, because if some investigation discovers that you are in breach of the national security law, you are in big trouble,” said the expert on elections.

National security Hong Kong flag
Photo: GovHK

A controversial national security law imposed by Beijing on the city last June outlaws secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts. Offences carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Ma said young politicians from the pro-democracy camp would find it difficult to take part in future elections, as many high-profile mature politicians have been detained under the security law. 

“The potential price is much higher compared to what it was in the past,” he said. 

Reflecting on the electoral overhaul as a whole, Ma said he sees it as a “major regression in terms of democracy.” He said while Hong Kong had a limited election in the past, where citizens would select half of the members of the legislature, it was still “an important part of the public opinion mechanism” in the semi-autonomous region.

In future only 22 per cent of LegCo’s seats will be directly elected. The screening mechanisms will also exclude a substantial part of the political spectrum, Ma said, as he predicted localists would not be allowed to stand. 

“The weight of people’s vote is very much diminished… it makes the system much less representative. It will serve as a major discouragement for voters to participate,” he said. 

Although Hong Kong had not been a full democracy, Ma said Hongkongers had enjoyed “substantial freedom” when they could elect at least half of their lawmakers. 

But such rights and freedom seemed to have been taken away in the space of one year, he said, with the enactment of the national security law and the electoral changes.

“The whole process makes Hong Kong people feel that public opinion is no longer respected. They will not play an important role in the future policy-making process,” Ma said.

Geographical constituencies redrawn 

Under the draft bill, the current five geographical constituencies for LegCo election will be redrawn into ten areas. Hong Kong Island will be divided into East and West, with the Outlying Islands being regrouped into the latter.

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