China’s top lawmaking body has formally unveiled plans to ensure that only “patriots” can govern Hong Kong, as Beijing tightens its grip on the city with electoral changes including a vetting process for all parliamentary candidates.
In an annual “work report” delivered on Friday to Beijing’s most important political meeting, Premier Li Keqiang swore to “resolutely guard against and deter” interference by external forces, amid growing international alarm at Beijing’s attacks on pro-democracy voices.
Li also pledged to “resolutely deter any separatist activity” in Taiwan, and revealed significant economic and population goals for China’s future, including GDP growth above 6%.
Li delivered his speech to 3,000 delegates of the National People’s Congress on the first day of the rubber-stamping legislative body’s annual week-long meeting, which along with a parallel meeting is part of what is known as the “two sessions”.
A draft decision was submitted to the NPC on Friday morning, said Wang Chen, the vice-chair of the NPC’s standing committee. The text is not yet public, but Chen flagged major changes to parts of Hong Kong’s mini constitution that govern elections, including a change in the size of the committee that elects the chief executive. The changes would also grant the committee new powers to “directly participate in the nomination of all legislative council members”, and establish “a qualification vetting system for the whole process”.
“The rioting and turbulence that occurred in the Hong Kong society reveals that the existing electoral system in [Hong Kong] has clear loopholes and deficiencies,” Chen said, according to state media. “Necessary measures must be taken to improve the electoral system and remove existing institutional risks to ensure the administration of Hong Kong by Hong Kong people with patriots as the main body.”
Willy Lam, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Agence France-Presse that the proposed vetting committee would allow Beijing authorities and Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, to disqualify any candidates deemed not to be fully loyal to the Chinese Communist party and “effectively wipe out any remaining opposition”.
Hours after the announcement, Beijing’s liaison office, its highest representative in the city, said people “from all walks of life in Hong Kong have voiced their support”. “The situation has a solid foundation of the rule of law, political foundation, and public opinion,” the office said.
The changes to the electoral system further strengthen Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong, after it announced a sweeping new national security law at last year’s NPC meeting.
The national security law has already been used to arrest or charge about 100 people, including 47 charged for holding unofficial primary polls in preparation for elections postponed until September 2021. On Friday four of the 47 were released on bail. Citing unnamed sources, Hong Kong media reported that the election would be delayed for another year.
Li, in his speech, reiterated warnings that China would “resolutely deter any separatist activity seeking Taiwan independence”. Despite the Communist party never having ruled Taiwan, Beijing considers it to be a part of China and has promised “reunification”, by force if necessary. It has dramatically increased military activity near Taiwan in the past year.
Li said China was committed “to promoting the peaceful growth of relations across the Taiwan strait and China’s reunification”, but would be “highly vigilant” about any activities it deemed separatist.
Taiwan’s government, formed at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, maintains it has always been an independent country and has no need to seek any split. Taiwanese people are mostly opposed to Beijing rule.
State media reported that a draft of China’s 14th five-year plan was also delivered to the NPC, which flags more investment in coal to power its economy over the next five years, and only modestly increased ambitions for renewables, despite a target of carbon neutrality by 2060.
Li’s wide-ranging speech confirmed major domestic initiatives before the formal launch of the five-year plan. Economic growth targets have been reintroduced after the Covid-19 pandemic prompted Beijing to abandon them last year for the first time in decades, and Li set China’s growth rate target at “over 6%”. China was the only major economy to grow last year, expanding by 2.3%, and it claimed to have completely eradicated poverty this year.
Li said the government aimed to create more than 11m jobs in urban centres – 2m more than last year’s target. In addressing an emerging ageing population crisis, Li said the government would also work to achieve “an appropriate birthrate”.
Preliminary figures show the birthrate fell by 15% last year, and in 2018 official estimates predicted that 20% of the population would be over 60 by 2025. Li said Beijing would “promote the realisation of moderate fertility”, demonstrating a relaxation of its once tight control over families with the one-child policy.
Li confirmed a “phased” raising of the statutory retirement age, which has remained unchanged for four decades at 60 for men and 55 for women, which is far earlier than in most developed countries.