BEIJING – China’s ceremonial legislature on Thursday endorsed the ruling Communist Party’s move to tighten control over Hong Kong by reducing the role of its public in picking the territory’s leaders.
The measure drew condemnation from Britain and the U.S. and accusations it will disenfranchise Hong Kong's people. It adds to a crackdown against a protest movement in Hong Kong calling for greater democracy. The crackdown has prompted accusations Beijing is eroding the autonomy it promised when the former British colony was returned to China in 1997 and is hurting its status as a global financial center.
Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong has added to irritants in China's relations with Washington, Europe and other governments that also include trade, technology and the party's treatment of ethnic minorities.
The National People’s Congress voted 2,895-0, with one abstention, in support of the plan to give a pro-Beijing committee power to appoint more of Hong Kong’s lawmakers, reducing the number elected by voters. NPC members, who are appointed by the party, routinely endorse party plans by unanimous vote or overwhelming majorities.
President Xi Jinping and other leaders sat on stage in front of delegates as they cast votes electronically in the cavernous Great Hall of the People. The NPC has no real powers but the party uses its annual meeting, the year’s highest-profile political event, to showcase government plans and major decisions.
The NPC also endorsed the ruling party’s latest five-year development blueprint, which calls for stepping up efforts to transform China into a more self-reliant technology creator. That threatens to worsen strains with Washington and Europe over trade and market access.
The NPC focuses on domestic issues but increasingly is overshadowed by geopolitics as Xi’s government pursues more assertive trade and strategic policies and feuds with the U.S., Australia and others over the coronavirus, conflicting claims to the South China Sea and accusations of spying and technology theft.
Also Thursday, the country’s No. 2 leader, Premier Li Keqiang, said economic growth might be faster than this year's official target of “above 6%” he announced last week, which surprised forecasters who expect an expansion of at least 8%. But he said Beijing is more concerned about firming up its recovery from the coronavirus and keeping growth steady.
China was the only major economy to grow last year while the United States, Europe and Japan struggled with renewed coronavirus outbreaks. Chinese growth accelerated to 6.5% over a year earlier in the final quarter of 2020.
“There may be even faster growth,” Li said at a news conference. However, he said, “we must avert wild swings in economic performance.”
As an anti-virus measure, the premier sat in the Great Hall and talked by video link with reporters at a media center 6.5 kilometers (4 miles) away. Reporters were required to arrive nine hours in advance to be tested for the coronavirus and wait in hotel rooms for the results.
Under the changes in Hong Kong, a 1,500-member Election Committee will pick the territory’s chief executive and an unspecified “relatively large” number of members of its 90-seat legislature.
Committee members would come from five segments of society, including business and political figures. That would give pro-Beijing forces more influence than a popular vote would. Hong Kong news reports said earlier the committee will pick one-third of the members of the Legislative Council, or LegCo.
Beijing wants to see “patriots ruling Hong Kong,” the premier said. He said the changes would “safeguard national security” in the territory and support “prosperity and stability.”
Britain’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said the move is “contrary to the promises made by China itself” about Hong Kong. He said Beijing is trying to “hollow out” space for democratic debate.
“This can only further undermine confidence and trust in China living up to its international responsibilities and legal obligations, as a leading member of the international community,” Raab said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the NPC's decision was a direct attack on autonomy China had earlier promised to Hong Kong's people and ran counter to the Basic Law, Hong Kong's constitution. “These actions deny Hong Kongers a voice in their own governance by limiting political participation, reducing democratic representation, and stifling political debate,” Blinken said in a statement from Washington.
The Hong Kong leader, Carrie Lam, welcomed the change and said in a statement it will allow the territory to “resolve the problem of the LegCo making everything political in recent years and effectively deal with the reckless moves or internal rift that have torn Hong Kong apart.”
Last year, the party used the NPC session to impose a national security law on Hong Kong in response to the protests that began in 2019. Under that law, 47 former legislators and other pro-democracy figures have been arrested on subversion charges that carry a possible maximum penalty of life in prison.
“The Hong Kong people will be disenfranchised” under the latest changes, said Emily Lau, a former Hong Kong legislator.
“Beijing wants to exert very tight control,” said Lau, a member of the city’s Democratic Party. “It’s not democracy.”
Lau said concerns expressed by some Chinese officials about a possible attempt to overthrow the government are overblown.
“Hong Kong people are not going to have independence or overthrow the government. No way,” she said. “What they should do is engage, listen to the voices of Hong Kong people so we can have a dialogue and reach a consensus on how to move forward, instead of just coming down on us like a ton of bricks."
AP writers Zen Soo in Hong Kong and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.