China on Friday unveiled the first in a slew of changes to Hong Kong's electoral system that will ensure that politics is only conducted by staunch supporters of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
A 1,200-strong election committee that has previously elected the city's chief executive will now also be given the power to pick most members of the Legislative Council (LegCo), half of whom were previously returned by direct elections in geographical constituencies.
The committee will also get to pick who can stand as a candidate in the first place, Wang Chen, vice chairman of the National People's Congress (NPC) standing committee, told the first annual NPC session in Beijing on Friday.
"The Election Committee has been given the new function of electing a relatively large proportion of Legislative Council members and directly participating in the nomination of all candidates for the Legislative Council," Wang said.
Wang also signaled changes to the way in which the current election committee is formed, amid expectations that it will grow in size.
While the remaining seats in LegCo will likely still be returned by professional bodies and other "functional" constituencies, the election committee's veto on candidates essentially ensures that no pro-democracy candidate will be allowed to stand for election to LegCo from anywhere.
"Obvious loopholes and shortcomings" in Hong Kong's electoral system had allowed "anti-China forces" to threaten China's national sovereignty, security and economic interests in Hong Kong, Wang told assembled NPC delegates.
Premier Li Keqiang, who delivered his annual work report on Friday, also told the NPC: "We will resolutely guard against and deter external forces’ interference in the affairs of Hong Kong and Macau."
State news agency Xinhua said Beijing is taking steps to ensure that only "patriots" can be involved in running Hong Kong.
"After Hong Kong's return to the motherland, a group of disruptors who entered the governance architecture of Hong Kong under the pretense of public officers have in recent years been acting openly and unlawfully against China," the agency said in an editorial in English published on Friday.
"For years, anti-China forces seeking to disrupt Hong Kong have been colluding with external forces in an attempt to seize the jurisdiction over Hong Kong, with clear goals and concrete actions," it said.
"Effective measures must be taken to block these pawns of anti-China forces from being elected ... and knock them out once and for all," it said.
'There's really no hope'
Ivan Choy, senior lecturer in politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), said it will be nigh on impossible for pro-democracy candidates to run in any future elections in the city.
"There's really no hope of ever getting fully democratic elections now," Choy told RFA. "Even if we carried on with the system we currently have, there would be a huge loss of power [for the opposition]."
"Now it looks as if it will be very hard for pro-democracy candidates to stand in any future elections," he said.
Choy said it was significant that the move was going ahead despite low public opinion rankings for the administration of chief executive Carrie Lam.
"The greatest tragedy is that Beijing has made it clear that it is determined to ignore the views of the people of Hong Kong," he said.
The move comes after police in Hong Kong charged 47 pro-democracy figures with "subversion" for taking part in a democratic primary election in July 2020, with a view to winning a landslide victory in September 2020 LegCo elections and disrupting the government's budget.
This was regarded as a plot to subvert the government, according to police.
The government then postponed the elections, citing coronavirus concerns, and disqualified four opposition LegCo members, prompting the entire pro-democracy camp to resign en masse in December 2020.
Former LegCo members and sitting members of the District Council -- which has been dominated by opposition councilors since a landslide victory at the height of the 2019 protest movement -- make up a high proportion of the 47 defendants.
Four of the defendants were released on bail on Friday, amid stringent conditions requiring their public silence on political matters.
Clarisse Yeung, Lawrence Lau, Hendrick Lui, and Mike Lam will be banned from doing or saying anything that "harms national security." They will also be required to keep a curfew, report to police several times a week, and surrender their travel documents.
The remainder of the group are still behind bars, after 31 were denied bail and 15 were granted it, a decision that is subject to further legal challenge from the department of justice.
Reported by Fong Tak Ho, Lu Xi and Man Hoi Yan for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.