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China formalizes sweeping electoral shake-up for Hong Kong and demands loyalty

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China finalized a sweeping overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system on Tuesday (30 March), drastically curbing democratic representation in the city as authorities seek to ensure “patriots” rule the global financial hub, write Yew Lun Tian and Clare Jim.

The measures are part of Beijing’s efforts to consolidate its increasingly authoritarian grip over its freest city following the imposition of a national security law in June, which critics see as a tool to crush dissent.

The changes would see the number of directly elected representatives fall and the number of Beijing-approved officials rise in an expanded legislature, Xinhua news agency reported.

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As part of the shake-up, a powerful new vetting committee will monitor candidates for public office and work with national security authorities to ensure they are loyal to Beijing.

Maria Tam, a senior Hong Kong politician who works with China’s parliament on matters relating to Hong Kong’s mini-constitution told Reuters the Committee for Safeguarding National Security would help the new vetting committee to “understand the background of all of the candidates, specifically whether they had complied with the national security law.”

Beijing imposed the contentious security legislation on Hong Kong in June, punishing what it broadly defines as subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism with up to life in jail.

Chinese authorities have said the electoral shake-up is aimed at getting rid of “loopholes and deficiencies” that threatened national security during anti-government unrest in 2019 and to ensure only “patriots” run the city.

The measures are the most significant overhaul of Hong Kong’s political structure since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and alter the size and composition of the legislature and electoral committee in favour of pro-Beijing figures.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and several city officials, including the Secretary for Justice, all issued separate statements praising China’s move.

“I firmly believe that by improving the electoral system and implementing ‘patriots administering Hong Kong’, the excessive politicisation in society and the internal rift that has torn Hong Kong apart can be effectively mitigated,” Lam said.

Speaking at a press conference later, Lam said the changes would be submitted to the Legislative Council by mid-April and expected to see them passed by the end of May.

Legislative Council elections, which were postponed in September with the government citing coronavirus, would be held in December, she added, while the city’s leadership election would be held in March, as planned.Slideshow ( 4 images )

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The number of directly elected representatives will drop to 20 from 35 and the size of the legislature increase to 90 seats from 70 currently, Xinhua said, while an election committee responsible for selecting the chief executive will increase from 1,200 members to 1,500.

The representation of 117 community-level district councillors in the election committee would be scrapped and the six district council seats in the Legislative Council will also go, according to Xinhua.

District councils are the city’s only fully democratic institution, and almost 90% of the 452 district seats are controlled by the democratic camp after a 2019 vote. They mostly deal with grassroots issues such as public transport links and garbage collection.

The electoral restructuring was endorsed unopposed by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, at the apex of China’s legislature, Xinhua reported.

Beijing had promised universal suffrage as an ultimate goal for Hong Kong in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which also guarantees the city wide-ranging autonomy not seen in mainland China, including freedom of speech.

Critics say the changes move Hong Kong in the opposite direction, leaving the democratic opposition with the most limited space it has ever had since the handover, if any at all.

Since the security law was imposed, most pro-democracy activists and politicians have found themselves ensnared by it, or arrested for other reasons.

Some elected legislators have been disqualified, with authorities calling their oaths insincere, while scores of democracy activists have been driven into exile.

All legislature candidates, including direct elected seats, will also need nominations from each of the five subsectors in the election committee, according to Xinhua, making it more difficult for pro-democracy candidates to take part in the election.

“They want to increase the safety factor so that in the future, the democrats will not only get very limited seats, if they are not liked by Beijing, they won’t even be able to run in the election,” said Ivan Choy, a senior lecturer at Chinese University of Hong Kong’s department of government and public administration.

He expects the democratic candidates to get at most one-sixth, or around 16 seats, in LegCo after the reforms.

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US concern over China nukes buildup after new silos report

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Military vehicles carrying DF-5B intercontinental ballistic missiles travel past Tiananmen Square during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing, China 1 October, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo

The Pentagon and Republican congressmen on Tuesday (27 July) aired fresh concerns about China's build-up of its nuclear forces after a new report saying Beijing was building 110 more missile silos, writes David Brunnstrom, Reuters.

An American Federation of Scientists (AFS) report on Monday (26 July) said satellite images showed China was building a new field of silos near Hami in the eastern part of its Xinjiang region.

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The report came weeks after another on the construction of about 120 missile silos in Yumen, a desert area about 240 miles (380 km) to the southeast.

"This is the second time in two months the public has discovered what we have been saying all along about the growing threat the world faces and the veil of secrecy that surrounds it," the U.S. Strategic Command said in tweet linked to a New York Times article on the AFS report.

The State Department in early July called China's nuclear buildup concerning and said it appeared Beijing was deviating from decades of nuclear strategy based around minimal deterrence. It called on China to engage with it "on practical measures to reduce the risks of destabilizing arms races."

Republican Congressman Mike Turner, ranking member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, said China's nuclear build-up was "unprecedented" and made clear it was "deploying nuclear weapons to threaten the United States and our allies."

He said China's refusal to negotiate arms control "should be a cause for concern and condemned by all responsible nations".

Another Republican, Mike Rogers, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the Chinese build-up showed the need to rapidly modernize the US nuclear deterrent.

A 2020 Pentagon report estimated China's nuclear warhead stockpile in "the low 200s" and said it was projected to at least double in size as Beijing expands and modernizes its forces. Analysts say the United States has around 3,800 warheads, and according to a State Department factsheet, 1,357 of those were deployed as of 1 March.

Washington has repeatedly called on China to join it and Russia in a new arms control treaty.

The report on the new silos comes as Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is due to hold arms control talks with Russia in Geneva on Wednesday.

Sherman was in China earlier this week for talks at which Beijing accused Washington of creating an "imaginary enemy" to divert attention from domestic problems and suppress China.

Beijing says its arsenal is dwarfed by those of the United States and Russia and it is ready to conduct bilateral dialogues on strategic security "on the basis of equality and mutual respect".

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US and China positions at a standstill in entrenched Tianjin talks

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With no indication of a US-China leaders' summit in the works, nor any outcomes announced from high-level diplomatic talks on Monday (26 July), relations between Beijing and Washington appear to be at a standstill as both sides insist the other must make concessions for ties to improve, write Michael Martina and David Brunnstrom.

US officials had stressed that Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman's trip to the northern Chinese port city of Tianjin to meet Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other officials was a chance to ensure that stiffening competition between the two geopolitical rivals does not veer into conflict.

But the combative statements that emerged from the meeting – albeit coupled with suggestions from officials that closed-door sessions were marginally more cordial – mirrored the tone set in Alaska in March, when the first senior-level diplomatic talks under President Joe Biden were overshadowed by rare public vitriol from both sides.

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While Tianjin did not expose the same degree of outward hostility that was on display in Alaska, the two sides appeared to stop short of actually negotiating anything, sticking instead to lists of established demands.

Sherman pressed China on actions Washington says run counter to the rules-based international order, including Beijing's crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, what the U.S. government has deemed is an ongoing genocide in Xinjiang, abuses in Tibet and the curtailing of press freedoms.

"I think it'd be wrong to characterize the United States as somehow seeking or soliciting China's cooperation," a senior U.S. administration official told reporters after the talks, referring to global concerns such as climate change, Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea.

"It is going to be up to the Chinese side to determine how ready they are as well to… take the next step," a second U.S. administration official said of bridging disagreements.

But Wang insisted in a statement that the ball was in the United States' court.

"When it comes to respecting international rules, it is the United States that must think again," he said, demanding that Washington remove all unilateral sanctions and tariffs on China.

China's Foreign Ministry has recently signaled there could be preconditions for the United States on which any kind of co-operation would be contingent, a stance some analysts say is a recipe for diplomatic ossification and that leaves dim prospects for improved ties.

Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said it was important for the two sides to maintain some form of engagement. At the same time, there appeared to be no agreement in Tianjin for follow-up meetings or mechanisms for ongoing dialogue.

"That will probably leave US allies and partners uneasy. They are hoping for greater stability and predictability in the US-China relationship," Glaser said.

Both sides are likely to be disappointed if they expect the other to give in first, she added.

There has been some expectation in foreign policy circles that Biden could meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping for the first time since becoming president on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Italy in October.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the prospect of a Biden-Xi meeting did not come up in Tianjin, though she added that she expects there will be some opportunity to engage at some point.

Indications are, meanwhile, that the Biden administration may scale up both enforcement actions impacting Beijing – such as cracking down on Iranian oil sales to China – and coordination with allies in the context of countering China, including another summit later this year that Biden is keen to host with the leaders of Japan, Australia, and India.

Biden's White House also has given few signals that it intends to roll back tariffs on Chinese goods established under the Trump administration.

At the same time, cooperation on the COVID-19 pandemic seems almost entirely out of reach, with the United States calling Beijing's rejection of a World Health Organization plan for further study of the virus' origin "irresponsible" and "dangerous".

There has been little sign either of a willingness by China to cooperate with Washington on the climate issue, a priority for Biden, despite energetic entreaties by U.S. climate envoy John Kerry.

"What was on display in Tianjin is that both sides are still very far apart on how they view the value and role of diplomatic engagement," said Eric Sayers, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Scott Kennedy, a China specialist at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies,, said neither side saw much upside for now in being more cooperative.

"And there's no low-hanging fruit for cooperation for either side and any gesture toward co-operation actually comes with significant costs, both domestic and strategic," he said.

"I think we ought to have very low expectations about the two sides finding common ground and stabilizing the relationship in the near future."

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Chinese president Xi Jinping visits troubled region of Tibet

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President Xi Jinping (pictured) has visited the politically troubled region of Tibet, the first official visit by a Chinese leader in 30 years, writes BBC.

The president was in Tibet from Wednesday to Friday, but the visit only reported by state media on Friday due to the sensitivities of the trip.

China is accused of suppressing cultural and religious freedom in the remote and mainly Buddhist region.

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The government denies the accusations.

In footage released by state broadcaster CCTV, Mr Xi was seen greeting a crowd wearing ethnic costumes and waving the Chinese flag as he left his plane.

He arrived in Nyingchi, in the south-east of the country and visited a number of locations to learn about urban development, before travelling to the capital Lhasa on the high-altitude railway.

While in Lhasa, Mr Xi visited the Potala Palace, the traditional home of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

People in the city had "reported unusual activities and monitoring of their movement" ahead of his visit, advocacy group International Campaign for Tibet said on Thursday.

Mr Xi last visited the region 10 years ago as vice-president. The last sitting Chinese leader to officially visit Tibet was Jiang Zemin in 1990.

State media said Mr Xi took time to learn about the work being done on ethnic and religious affairs and the work done to protect Tibetan culture.

Many exiled Tibetans accuse Beijing of religious repression and eroding their culture.

Tibet has had a tumultuous history, during which it has spent some periods functioning as an independent entity and others ruled by powerful Chinese and Mongolian dynasties.

China sent in thousands of troops to enforce its claim on the region in 1950. Some areas became the Tibetan Autonomous Region and others were incorporated into neighbouring Chinese provinces.

China says Tibet has developed considerably under its rule, but campaign groups say China continues to violate human rights, accusing it of political and religious repression.

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