Lord Patten of Barnes last night warned that China's Communist Party had taken its most significant step yet towards tearing up the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong after Beijing announced an overhaul of the city's electoral system.
China on Friday moved to bar pro-democracy candidates from standing for election in Hong Kong and hinted at expanding the legislative to include more Beijing-appointed members.
“China's communist parliament has taken the biggest step so far to obliterate Hong Kong's freedoms and aspirations for greater democracy under the rule of law," said Lord Patten, the last colonial governor of Hong Kong.
"The Chinese Communist Party has ordained that in order to be a Chinese patriot you must swear allegiance to the Communist Party. This completely destroys the pledge of one-country, two-systems."
Mr Patten went on to say the CCP was "a continuing and brutal danger to all who believe in free and open societies.”
China announced the new plans at the annual meeting of its ‘rubber-stamp’ parliament. The Communist Party said it wanted to “to safeguard national security", amid mounting criticism from the UK and other Western nations for Beijing’s suppression of the territory.
“We will resolutely guard against and deter external forces’ interference in the affairs of Hong Kong,” Li Keqiang, the country’s premier, said in an opening speech to the National People's Congress in Beijing.
About 3,000 delegates from across the country descended in Beijing, under increased security and coronavirus controls to ensure the most high-profile political event of the year goes off without a hitch.
The annual two-week meeting is heavy on political spectacle and light on actual lawmaking, as delegates have no choice but to approve proposals put forward by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
This year, China’s parliament is expected to put forward a decision to “improve” Hong Kong’s electoral system that would allow Beijing to ensure only “patriots” can be elected to govern the territory. Opposition politicians have been deemed sufficiently “unpatriotic” to hold office. A largely pro-Beijing committee that elects Hong Kong's leader will also choose a large part of the legislature, a top Chinese official announced on Friday.
He did not say how many legislators would be chosen by the committee. Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper, citing unidentified sources, said it would be 30 seats in an expanded 90-seat legislature.
Elections for Hong Kong’s mini-parliament could be delayed for a second year until September 2022 to allow for these changes, Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post reported on Friday.
They were already delayed last year, with officials citing the coronavirus pandemic. Critics, however, accused the government of using public health reasons to stifle opposition candidates from running and potentially winning more seats.
Allowing only candidates deemed “patriotic” would be devastating for Hong Kong by removing the last threads of political opposition in the city.
Installing new election rules to do so will give Beijing a way to claim that barring some candidates is merely process, and required by law.
At the gathering last year, China announced a sweeping national security law for the territory, which criminalises anything deemed by Chinese authorities to be a national security crime.
On Friday, Mr Li also announced that China would aim to hit above six per cent economic growth for 2021, moving the world’s second-largest economy back on its pre-pandemic growth trajectory. Despite coronavirus, China still managed to post 2.3 per cent growth last year.
Beijing also plans to increase defence spending by 6.8 per cent this year, earmarking nearly 1.36 trillion yuan (£150 billion) on military, as leaders have grown increasingly shrill about shoring up “national sovereignty” – namely bringing Taiwan and Hong Kong under control.
Mr Li also vowed that China would “remain highly vigilant against and resolutely deter any separatist activity seeking ‘Taiwan independence.’”
China’s ceremonial legislature typically focuses on the domestic agenda, though its annual meeting has become increasingly overshadowed by geopolitics as leader Xi Jinping faces growing criticism for his crackdown on dissent, human rights abuses, and coercive trade practices.