Hong Kong's government on Tuesday said it will be illegal for residents to encourage others to boycott or cast blank ballots in the city's already limited local elections as part of China's drive to ensure only "patriots" govern the finance hub.
Beijing imposed sweeping changes on Hong Kong's electoral system last month, the latest step in an ongoing crackdown on the city's democracy movement after massive and often violent protests.
The new changes ensure a majority of lawmakers will be selected by a reliably pro-Beijing committee, and every candidate must first be vetted for their political loyalty by national security officers.
The radical overhaul was passed without one dissenting vote by China's rubber-stamp parliament.
But Hong Kong's legislature, which was recently scrubbed of any opposition, now has to pass a slew of new laws to meet Beijing's orders.
On Tuesday, the government announced more than 600 pages of new legislation which will have a first reading on Wednesday and then be fast-tracked through the legislature.
Among the new provisions are measures making it illegal to encourage others to make protest votes.
"We will regulate acts that manipulate and damage the election... and ban anyone from openly inciting others to not vote or cast blank and voided votes," chief executive Carrie Lam told reporters.
The law will not stop individual voters from boycotting the polls or voiding their ballots. But campaigning "during the election period" for others to do so will be outlawed.
The maximum penalty will be three years in jail, Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng told reporters. She added that gestures, such as putting up a flag in a window, would also count as an offence.
- 'Patriots administration' -
China's leaders have moved decisively to tighten their control of Hong Kong, dismantling the business hub's limited democratic pillars after massive protests broke out in 2019.
They imposed a national security law last year that outlawed much dissent.
Dozens of campaigners have been prosecuted or jailed since, smothering protests in a city that had enjoyed greater political freedoms than the authoritarian mainland under the "One Country, Two Systems" arrangement.
Hong Kong is not a democracy, although its Beijing approved mini-constitution states that "universal suffrage" is an ultimate goal.
Instead, a carefully calibrated political system was created to ensure Beijing maintained control while providing a veneer of choice that allowed opposition voices to exist.
That system is now being overhauled with a campaign Beijing has dubbed: "Patriots administering Hong Kong".
When Hong Kongers are allowed to vote, they tend to do so overwhelmingly for pro-democracy candidates, something that has rattled authoritarian Beijing.
Under the new measures, the city's legislature will be expanded from 70 to 90 seats, but only 20 of them will now be directly elected, down from 35.
The rest will be chosen by reliably pro-Beijing committees.
Sitting on top of everything will be a new powerful committee that will vet anyone standing for political office.
Critics say the move will eviscerate the last vestiges of Hong Kong's political opposition.
China has portrayed the changes as a move to improve the "quality" of the city's election system and close loopholes that allowed "unpatriotic" politicians to get elected.