Hong Kong electoral revamp: December date for Legislative Council polls, key role for new chief convenor overseeing committee

Jeffie Lam
·13-min read

Key points:

– Election Committee will enjoy biggest share of Legislative Council seats with 40, while 30 seats go to the trade-based functional constituencies, leaving the directly elected geographical constituencies with just 20, down from 35

– First-ever chief convenor will assume top role on Election Committee, must hold state leadership position to qualify

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– Corporate voters will have greater say in picking their trade-based representatives to the Election Committee

– Legco hopefuls must now secure nominations from each of the five sectors of the Election Committee, making it extremely difficult for opposition candidates to run

– All 117 district council seats in the Election Committee have been scrapped

– The vetting committee will pick candidates based on information provided by police’s national security unit, and no judicial review or appeal of the decision will be allowed

China’s top legislative body has approved fundamental changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system in the most sweeping overhaul to date, slashing the number of directly elected seats in the city’s legislature from half to about one-fifth and entrusting a newly empowered Election Committee with far-reaching influence.

For the first time in the city’s history, the committee now taking charge of all key elections in the city will be led by a chief convenor, a member who “holds an office of state leadership”, according to an official announcement by the official Xinhua news agency.

Under the finalised reform plan approved unanimously by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on Tuesday, the Election Committee will be granted the new power to send 40 representatives to the Legislative Council, which has been expanded from 70 to 90 seats.

The 167-0 vote was accompanied by a large round of applause, according to Tam Yiu-chung, the city’s sole representative to the standing committee.

Xinhua later confirmed the changes had been promulgated in two orders signed by President Xi Jinping.

Here are the latest details and reactions from different stakeholders.

Big questions for Democratic Party, leader says

Lo Kin-hei, chairman of the opposition Democratic Party, did not rule out members running for election after the overhaul but said it would depend on internal deliberations. For Legco hopefuls to secure nominations from each of the five Election Committee sectors would be a “very big hurdle”, he added.

“It is also too early at this stage to discuss whether we can get the nominations, the bigger question we have to decide is whether or not we would want to participate in elections.”

The overhaul had effectively brought the political system to a pre-1997 stage, he said, adding that the ultimate goal of universal suffrage was now further away. “The changes drastically reduce wider representation of different voices in the system … I think for many Hong Kong people, they have lost hope in Legco,” Lo said.

New subsector for mainland enterprises; plug pulled on IT

Legco’s trade-based constituency will have a third commercial subsector with 17 seats, in addition to the two existing ones representing local business chambers. Carrie Lam said the new subsector would be filled by those elected by members of the Hong Kong Chinese Enterprises Association, which comprises 1,200 mainland businesses registered in the city.

These companies had a huge market share in Hong Kong, employed a lot of the local workforce, and engaged widely in charity, she said, explaining the move to give them seats in the powerful body.

Lam also said the IT subsector in Legco, traditionally dominated by the opposition camp and with 30 seats returned by individual votes, would be replaced by a new “technology and innovation” one.

The IT industry did not have a registration system for practitioners, she said. The new subsector would return the “best talents” in the field through corporate voting, she said.

Convenor has ‘absolutely no role in governance’

Carrie Lam said the Election Committee’s chief convenor – the holder of an office of state leadership – would not be appointed by her.

“This will be a vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, but I cannot tell you which one, it is not for me to say,” Lam added. Her predecessors Tung Chee-hwa and Leung Chun-ying are both vice-chairmen of the nation’s top advisory body.

Lam stressed the chief convenor and sub-convenors would only hold meetings under “very exceptional circumstances” and only during elections.

“This system has absolutely no role in governance … It has no influence over the chief executive and the officials,” she said.

The trade-based functional constituency is also in for a shake-up. Photo: Bloomberg
The trade-based functional constituency is also in for a shake-up. Photo: Bloomberg

No conflict of interest, Carrie Lam says

The Hong Kong leader also dismissed concerns there would be any conflict of interest due to her sitting on the city’s committee for safeguarding national security – now tasked with making recommendations to the vetting committee – or that she could single-handedly make any calls over the eligibility of election hopefuls.

“The public can judge whether the decision has been made rightly or wrongly,” Carrie Lam said.

Lam also said Beijing was sincere about giving Hong Kong universal suffrage, but opposition politicians had vetoed previous reform attempts. With riots and social unrest over the past few years, Lam said, Beijing had no choice but to overhaul the electoral system.

She said she was “quite certain” that Hong Kong could still move towards universal suffrage following the amendments as long as the city was not moving away from the “one country, two systems” principle.

Candidate vetting panel composed entirely of principal officials

The “candidate eligibility review committee”, which will screen those hoping to run for the city’s leadership and legislature, and candidates of the Election Committee, will be composed entirely of principal officials from the Hong Kong government, Carrie Lam has revealed.

For Legco hopefuls, the police force’s national security unit will first vet their backgrounds and pass on its findings to the Committee for Safeguarding National Security chaired by Lam.

“If the national security committee does not think one has duly sworn allegiance to the SAR … it will issue a view to the eligibility review committee, which will then decide whether to disqualify him. This decision cannot be legally challenged,” she said.

Legco elections will be held in December. Photo: Reuters
Legco elections will be held in December. Photo: Reuters

Pan-democrats can still run

Carrie Lam also defended the electoral overhaul, which critics said was a naked attempt to weed out pan-democrats.

“One should not take it for granted that all pan-democrats are unpatriotic. That would be very unfair to them,” she said. “There are pan-democrats who were patriotic in the past, now and in the future. They would not be unpatriotic simply because they call for democracy.”

Lam also said it was possible for pan-democrats to secure nominations from the new fifth sector of the Election Committee, which was expected to be filled by Beijing-loyalists.

Backing from pro-establishment bloc

Pro-establishment lawmakers and five key political parties from the camp threw their support behind the overhaul, saying in a press conference the revamp would be “beneficial and could increase representativeness”.

Camp convenor Martin Liao Cheung-kong said lawmakers would actively cooperate with the government and facilitate the changes to be applied for the coming elections, with the schedule tight.

“We have to remember that this electoral change is not a political reform facilitated under Basic Law Article 45, and [the details] are not up for bargaining. This is a policy from the central government to implement ‘Patriots governing Hong Kong’,” he said. “This is not about individual parties’ or the pro-establishment camp’s political gains, or how many seats [we] can gain. This is not the election game which we have been seeing.”

Lam sets out timetable

Carrie Lam said she aimed to introduce the local legislation by mid-April and hoped it would be passed by the end of May.

The Election Committee race would be held in September, while Legco elections originally slated for last September would be further pushed back to December. The new chief executive would be elected next March.

Lam said the current Legco – which had its term extended for a year after the government postponed the polls because of the pandemic – would serve until late October.

‘Resolute support’ from Carrie Lam

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said her administration resolutely supported the electoral overhaul led by Beijing. The central government had also taken her advice and that of her government when drafting the proposals, she told a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.

Lam said her administration would now focus on three aspects to fully implement the changes: strengthening explanations on the overhaul for the public, putting forward local legislation and arranging the coming three elections, for choosing Election Committee members, lawmakers and the city’s leader.

There were three main areas the government had to work on now, Lam said. It had to sort out which organisations, statutory bodies and other groups qualified to be members of the Election Committee. The “candidate eligibility review committee” had to be set up, and the boundaries of Legco’s geographical constituencies would also have to be redrawn.

Newcomers in Election Committee

The 1,200-strong Election Committee, originally tasked with picking the city’s chief executive, will be expanded by 300 members. The new members will include patriotic groups and members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) to further reinforce the pro-establishment camp’s control of the body.

Among the other newcomers in the Election Committee will be members of Area Committees, District Fight Crime Committees and District Fire Safety Committees, municipal-level bodies often dominated by the pro-establishment camp. Residents drawn from those groups will now take up 156 seats in the 1,500-member body. A total of 27 seats will also be allocated to representatives of mainland-based Hongkongers.

Election Committee dominates legislature

Under the overhaul, which Tam said would take effect on Wednesday, Legco’s geographical constituencies will be reduced to 20 from 35 seats – dramatically diluting the element of direct voting – while each of the 10 constituencies will return two members by direct voting.

Tam also said the local national security police unit would help scrutinise candidates and submit a report to the newly formed vetting committee.

No judicial review or appeal of the body’s decisions will be allowed for candidates, while vetting committee members will be appointed by the Hong Kong government, according to a pro-Beijing source.

A drastic revamp of Hong Kong’s electoral system approved on Tuesday morning is expected to see the city’s Election Committee granted the power to appoint 40 representatives to the city’s Legislative Council. Photo: Bloomberg
A drastic revamp of Hong Kong’s electoral system approved on Tuesday morning is expected to see the city’s Election Committee granted the power to appoint 40 representatives to the city’s Legislative Council. Photo: Bloomberg

As expected, the newly empowered Election Committee will enjoy the biggest share of Legco seats – with 40 – while 30 will go to the trade-based functional constituencies.

The amendment to the Basic Law annexes does not specify if only members of the Election Committee can qualify to contest the 40 seats they are responsible for choosing. But according to a source familiar with the plan, non-committee members will also be able to vie for those seats.

Candidates chosen by, but not members of, the committee were allowed to run for Legco seats between 1998 and 2004. “Details like these will be addressed by local legislation,” the source said.

Pan-democrats are also at risk of losing their strongholds in certain sectors of the Election Committee as more corporate bodies or entities – expected to be controlled by the pro-establishment bloc – will be allowed to vote for representatives of various business, professional and social sectors.

‘Fewer than 10 people’ to make up powerful vetting committee that will decide key candidates

All 117 district council seats on the Election Committee have also been scrapped. The seats were expected to have gone to the opposition had the electoral overhaul not been undertaken.

Tam said the sweeping changes had a “solid” mandate and would fully implement the principle of “patriots administering Hong Kong”.

“It will effectively prevent those people who disrupt Hong Kong from entering the Election Committee and Legislative Council through elections,” he said. “It will guarantee we elect people who genuinely defend the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, and are capable of serving the society and citizens, not those who stir up troubles”.

Election Committee’s convenor

A new system created for the Election Committee will see a convenor installed for the first time, a position tasked with calling meetings as necessary and handling other relevant matters for the now significantly more powerful body.

While it has yet to be revealed how the position will be filled, the chief convenor must “hold an office of state leadership”. That person will then be allowed to appoint additional convenors in each of the committee’s five sectors, which encompass various businesses, professions, social organisations, the new patriotic groups, lawmakers and local representatives to the country’s legislature.

Part of the Legislative Council complex (right) in Hong Kong. Photo: Bloomberg
Part of the Legislative Council complex (right) in Hong Kong. Photo: Bloomberg

High bar for Legco aspirants

Legco hopefuls are required to secure nominations from all five of the Election Committee’s sectors. The new requirement significantly raises the barriers to entry for opposition hopefuls given they will find it extremely difficult to secure support from all five sectors.

The number of nominations that must be obtained from each of the five sectors by Legco election candidates will be in the “single digits”, according to a source familiar with the overhaul.

But the nomination threshold is even more stringent for candidates running for chief executive, who must secure backing from 188 of the 1,500 members. They must also be nominated by at least 15 members of each sector.

Determining the exact size of the “candidates’ qualification review committee”, responsible for ensuring that anyone running for chief executive, the Legislative Council or the Election Committee poses no threat to national security, will be left up to Legco.

A new functional constituency, meanwhile, has been created to represent local delegates to the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. All 40 functional constituency seats – with the exception of nine sectors that include legal, accountancy and education – will be returned through corporate voting.

‘Dissident voices still allowed’

Shortly before the overhaul was endorsed by the NPC Standing Committee, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was asked if dissident voices would still exist in city politics.

“The answer is yes. The whole arrangement to improve the electoral system of the [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region] is to ensure patriots administrate Hong Kong. They have to fulfil a requirement, which actually is in our electoral law – that they have to bear allegiance to the HKSAR and also uphold the Basic Law,” she said.

“For people who hold different political beliefs, who are more inclined towards democracy or who are more conservative, who belong to the left or who belong to the right, as long as they meet this very fundamental and basic requirement, I don’t see why they could not run for election.”

Lam noted that senior Beijing officials had also said the changes would not leave the system with “homogenous” candidates.

More to follow …

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