China’s rubber-stamp parliament approved on Thursday a draft decision to change Hong Kong’s electoral system, further reducing democratic representation in the city’s institutions and introducing a mechanism to vet politicians’ loyalty to Beijing.
The measures are part of Beijing’s efforts to consolidate its increasingly authoritarian grip over the global financial hub following the imposition of a national security law in June, which critics see as a tool to crush dissent.
The National People’s Congress voted 2,895-0, with one abstention, to endorse the changes.
President Xi Jinping and other party leaders sat on stage in front of delegates as they cast votes electronically in the cavernous Great Hall of the People.
The NPC has no real powers but the party uses its brief annual meeting, the year’s highest-profile political event, to showcase government plans and major decisions.
Beijing is responding to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019, which it saw as a threat to China’s national security. Since then, most high-profile democratic politicians and activists have been sent to jail or are in self-exile.
“The central authorities have good intentions,” the Liaison Office, Beijing’s representative body in Hong Kong, said in a statement.
“We expect all sectors of the community and the general public to take ownership of the work to amend the law and offer suggestions, so that a strong positive energy can be gathered under the banner of patriotism and love for Hong Kong.”
In a separate statement, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam pledged her “staunch support” and expressed “sincere gratitude.”
The restructuring is aimed at getting the city “back on the right track,” Lam said.
The changes virtually eliminate any possibility of the opposition affecting the outcome of elections in the former British colony, whose return to Chinese rule in 1997 came with a promise of a high degree of autonomy.
The blanket requirement for “patriotism” raises the risk that politicians will start competing over who is more loyal to Beijing, rather than who has the better ideas for how the city should be governed, analysts say.
Hong Kong Secretary for Mainland and Constitutional Affairs Erick Tsang has defined patriotism as “holistic love” for China, including the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.
British foreign secretary Dominic Raab said on Thursday that the proposed changes would further undermine international trust in China.
“This is the latest step by Beijing to hollow out the space for democratic debate in Hong Kong,” Raab said.
Critics say the changes to the electoral system move Hong Kong in the opposite direction, leaving the democratic opposition with the most limited space it has ever had since the 1997 handover, if any at all.
Hong Kong is one of many flashpoints for U.S.-China tensions, with the Biden administration describing China as the “biggest geopolitical test” facing the U.S.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will meet their Chinese counterparts in Alaska next week, the State Department announced Wednesday.