Individuals in all professional sectors seen as Hong Kong’s opposition stronghold will no longer have the right to vote in the Election Committee to pick the city’s leader, as all 300 of such seats will either be appointed, or chosen by corporate voters or local representatives affiliated with mainland organisations under Beijing’s drastic overhaul of the city’s electoral system.
The decision, approved unanimously on Tuesday morning by China’s top legislative body, also enlarged the powerful body from 1,200 members to 1,500 by adding people from neighbourhood committees that advise on local crime and fire safety issues and are typically dominated by the pro-establishment camp.
The new structure favours corporate voting over individual votes, with the number of seats to be returned by single voters to drop from about 470 to 293, accounting for less than 20 per cent of the total.
The committee will have more than 400 seats chosen by mainland-affiliated bodies, mainland enterprises in the city, or groups that have other ties with the mainland, including 110 to be filled by Hong Kong members of “relevant national organisations”.
The changes in effect not only sharply reduce the potential influence of the opposition in the committee, but also weaken the clout of the city’s tycoons who have long been regarded as “kingmakers” in previous races for the city’s leader.
Under the most sweeping changes to the city’s electoral system to date, the addition of a new fifth sector composed of 300 Beijing loyalists to the committee was widely anticipated but the bigger surprise was the complete revamp of the voting mechanism of numerous subsectors previously held by pro-democracy players.
In the last subsector elections in 2016, the camp bagged 325 seats running on a campaign to oppose Leung Chun-ying serving a second term, sweeping all of the legal, social welfare, education and higher education subsectors. Some 601 votes were needed to elect a new chief executive. Leung did not run in the end and Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor became the Beijing-endorsed candidate who won the post.
Under the plans approved on Tuesday, individuals of all professional subsectors seen as opposition strongholds were barred from electing their representatives. Instead, seats would either be filled by ex officio members, or returned by corporate voters or local representatives affiliated to mainland groups.
Beijing has also decided to slash the seats by half in several subsectors, including in medical and health services, social welfare and education. In the revamped 30-seat education subsector, corporate voters will pick 14 of them, while ex officio members, including university presidents, will fill the remaining 16.
For some other professional subsectors, local representatives affiliated with mainland organisations will be empowered to decide who fills a significant number of seats.
Local representatives of the National Olympic Committee of Hong Kong, China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, and the Hong Kong Publishing Federation will nominate half of the 30 sports, performing arts, culture and publication subsector seats, while those of the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies will nominate half of the 30 Chinese medicine seats.
Half of the 30 technology and innovation subsector seats will be nominated by the Hong Kong Academicians of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and half of the 30 accountancy seats by local accounting advisers appointed by China’s Ministry of Finance.
In the legal subsector, nine of the 30 seats will be nominated by local representatives of the China Law Society, six will go to local members of the Basic Law Committee, and the remainder will be returned by corporate voters.
Stephen Char Shik-ngor, an elected member of the last committee’s legal subsector, said he was deeply disappointed that barristers who worked independently would be excluded from corporate voting.
And the veteran barrister questioned the representativeness of the mainland legal group in the local sector.
“Legal professionals here have very little communications with the China Law Society unless they practice mainland law,” he said. “What bodies can be more representative than the Bar Association and the Law Society in Hong Kong?”
Asked if he would run in the coming poll, Char, who won 2,156 votes in the 2016 subsector elections, said he had to seriously consider if he could achieve effective communications with Beijing with the seat under such a stringent mechanism.
But Simon Young Ngai-man, associate law dean at the University of Hong Kong, said it was hard to say if the new role of the mainland bodies deviated from the principle under the Basic Law of the committee being broadly representative.
“One thing that is probably clear is that it means a representation of interests rather than diverse geographical representation. Hong Kong is not so geographically diverse to call for the latter,” he said.
“What we are seeing now is a greater shift towards national interests relevant to Hong Kong. I would not say this is inconsistent with the Basic Law.”
Young also said another major change, which required eligible business entities to operate for not less than three years – as opposed to one year – to become corporate voters, was “an important safeguard against manipulation of the election”.
Defending the move to hand over various seats to local representatives of mainland organisations to fill, Chief Executive Carrie Lam cited the example of the technology and innovation sector and said: “Not only do they know Hong Kong well, they are Hong Kong’s elites.”
The influence of local property tycoons was also reduced in the new structure. The conglomerates, covering multiple sectors ranging from retail, shipping and real estate to transport, had direct and indirect representation on the committee amounting to as many as 300 votes.
But under the new framework, the commercial and industrial sector the tycoons controlled will lose 15 seats to a new subsector for small and medium enterprises, and one to a third commercial sector filled by mainland enterprises in Hong Kong. Their influence will also be diluted with the addition of 110 seats affiliated to national organisations.
As all 117 district council seats were scrapped to curb the influence of the opposition following its landslide victory in 2019 elections, the void will be filled by representatives of three kinds of government-appointed, low-level committees. These groups will return 156 seats altogether.
They include members of 67 area committees that support local administration in small neighbourhoods, and the fight crime and fire safety committees in each of the city’s 18 districts.
Justifying the move to remove district councillors, Lam said the councils, which were meant to be advisory bodies only, had been hugely politicised by opposition figures “with 80 per cent of members coming from one single stance, which is not balanced representation at all”.
“We need to find other candidates who are able to reflect the district view and to provide grass-roots prospective governance,” she said.
These municipal-level bodies, together with a 60-seat sector for “grass-roots associations” and another 60 for “associations of Chinese fellow townsmen”, would “fulfil this role very nicely”, she added.