Would-be candidates in Hong Kong’s future elections would be required to reveal whether they hold foreign citizenship or residency to a powerful new vetting committee, authorities have said, though some pro-Beijing lawmakers argue the rules for such disclosures should go even further.
The issue of candidates’ nationalities was a sticking point during a four-hour meeting at the Legislative Council on Monday, where lawmakers continued their scrutiny of the government’s umbrella bill aimed at implementing drastic changes to the city’s electoral system recently decreed by Beijing.
Under the overhaul, a new committee comprising a handful of principal officials will review the eligibility of every potential candidate for chief executive, lawmaker and member of the 1,500-seat Election Committee, which not only selects the city’s leader, but will also enjoy broader powers.
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The high-level group, with help from national security police, will determine whether election hopefuls are sufficiently patriotic in their pledges of allegiance and written declarations to uphold the Basic Law.
During the bills committee meeting on Monday, Alice Mak Mei-kuen, a lawmaker for the Federation of Trade Unions, urged officials to require everyone seeking to run in local elections to publicly declare during the nomination period whether they held a British National (Overseas) passport, any other nationality or residency in a foreign country.
But Permanent Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Roy Tang Yun-kwong said there were currently no plans to have potential candidates make such a public declaration, though the vetting committee would request information regarding their nationality for its own use if necessary.
“At the moment, we want to strike a balance,” he said.
Under the law, members of both the Election Committee and Legco must be Hong Kong permanent residents, but they do not necessarily need to be Chinese citizens. However, non-Chinese residents must not make up more than one-fifth of the legislature. Neither provision is expected to change under Beijing’s overhaul.
However, lawmakers on Monday were unsatisfied with Tang’s reply, and urged the authorities to consider requiring public declarations of any foreign ties.
“Holding a BN(O) passport is equivalent to having the right of abode in the United Kingdom,” said executive councillor and lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin, alluding to a new British visa scheme for Hongkongers who hold the special status. “This is a sensitive issue that could affect candidates’ allegiance.”
Lawmaker Paul Tse Wai-chun, meanwhile, called out current Legco president Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen, whose British citizenship had been a secret until it was revealed by news reports in 2016.
“Privacy was considered important in the past. Even in Legco, it was only discovered by the media that the president had a British passport,” Tse said. “But now we should attach greater importance to allegiance and national security.”
Following the revelations, Leung produced a copy of a declaration saying he had given up his British citizenship before becoming president.
Without offering specifics, constitutional and mainland affairs minister Erick Tsang Kwok-wai told lawmakers on Monday that the government would revisit the matter of collecting information regarding nationalities.
The Legco discussion on the finer points of the government’s bill – which comprises 765 pages of amendments and subsidiary legislation – came two days after a previous meeting sped through its broad strokes in just two hours.
Tse, who is a lawyer in addition to being a legislator, told a radio programme on Monday that some of the bill’s provisions had been “hastily drafted” by the city government, but he would consider “the big picture” and support the legislation nonetheless.
Under the changes approved by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee last month, the number of seats in Legco will expand from 70 to 90, while the number of directly elected representatives will be slashed from 35 to 20. The establishment-dominated Election Committee will be empowered to fill 40 of the seats.
The city’s legislature has been bereft of an opposition for five months after pan-democrats resigned in protest following a decision from Beijing allowing for the ousting of four of their colleagues last November.