Hong Kong’s government has announced electoral changes requiring office-holders to pledge and maintain an oath of loyalty to Hong Kong and Beijing, or face disqualification and a five-year ban on running for reelection.
A bill to “ensure patriots govern Hong Kong” has been endorsed by the chief executive council and will be tabled in March, the secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, Erick Tsang, told a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.
The announcement came a day after a top Beijing official signalled that major changes would be coming to ensure Hong Kong is run by “patriots” – a clear sign that China intends to no longer tolerate dissenting voices, 23 years after the former British colony was handed over to Chinese rule with a promise it could maintain its own rights and freedoms for 50 years.
Following China’s imposition of a sweeping national security law on the city last year, authorities have moved to expel members of the city’s legislative council deemed insufficiently loyal and rounded up veteran opposition leaders on charges including illegal assembly and colluding with foreign forces.
Government critics and western governments accuse Beijing of going back on its word and effectively ending the “one country, two systems” framework for governing the financial hub.
The bill extends oath-taking requirements to all public election participants, who must pledge allegiance to Hong Kong as a special administrative region of China, and the city’s mini-constitution, the basic law.
Anyone advocating for or supporting Hong Kong independence, or who refused to recognise the sovereignty of China over Hong Kong or the exercise of such sovereignty, cannot hold office, Tsang said.
Anyone found to have breached the oath could be suspended pending a court hearing and potential disqualification. If disqualified, the individual could not run again for five years, a time period which could potentially block candidates from two election cycles, which are every four years.
“To reflect the [solemnity] of the taking of the oath, we think anyone who fails to comply with the requirements should face restrictions on their ability to stand for election,” Tsang said.
Past behaviour would be taken into account, the South China Morning Post reported, raising the prospect that all participants in last year’s unofficial primaries held by the Democratic caucus would be targeted.
Tsang said there was no specific retrospective effect in the bill, “but whether or not we would judge acts committed in the past by a certain person, that would depend on the individual circumstances”.
“If you take the oath taking seriously, then you don’t have to worry.”
The reforms were flagged in a speech by the head of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, Xia Baolong, this week, which suggested Beijing was working on ensuring opposition candidates weren’t able to stand in Hong Kong’s already very limited elections. Xia outlined plans led by the central government to “improve” the electoral system in Hong Kong, and said authorities had to “close loopholes” which allowed “anti-China troublemakers” into politics.
There is no functioning opposition in Hong Kong’s parliament, after the democratic caucus resigned en masse in protest at the disqualification of four colleagues last year. More than 100 people have been arrested under the 2020 national security law, and thousands of others prosecuted over involvement in protests in 2019.