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Hong Kong democracy suffers another blow as elected seats slashed

2 May: Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement faced another setback on Tuesday as the city’s leader announced plans to reduce the number of directly elected seats on local district councils, the last major political bodies chosen by the public.

Chief Executive John Lee said the proposed overhaul will cut down the proportion of directly elected seats in the municipal-level organisation from about 90 per cent to around 20 per cent. He said the rest of the 470 seats will be filled by government appointees, rural committee chairpersons and others elected by local committees that are dominated by pro-establishment figures.

The move is widely seen as part of Beijing’s tightening control over the former British colony, which was promised a high degree of autonomy when it returned to China in 1997. Two years ago, Hong Kong already amended its electoral laws for its legislature, drastically reducing the public’s ability to vote and increasing the number of pro-Beijing lawmakers making decisions for the city.

The district councils, which mainly handle municipal matters such as construction projects and public facilities, gained significance after the pro-democracy camp won a landslide victory in the last poll at the height of the anti-government protests in 2019. Many pro-democracy district councilors eventually resigned in 2021, after authorities introduced an oath-taking requirement to ask them to pledge allegiance to the city. Their mass resignations followed media reports that councilors may have to repay their wages if they are later disqualified from office, which the government had not confirmed or denied at the time.

Critics regarded the requirement as part of a broader crackdown on the pro-democracy movement after the massive protests and enactment of the sweeping national security law in 2020. The resignations and other disqualifications had left just about one-third of the elected representatives still working in the councils, Lee said.

The next district council election is expected to take place later this year. Lee said he did not agree that pure counting of election votes mean democracy. “Different places have their own systems that must take into consideration all the characteristics and all the elements of that place,” he said.

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