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China unveils Hong Kong electoral changes as Beijing tightens grip

China’s top lawmaking body has unveiled plans to ensure only “patriots” can govern Hong Kong as Beijing tightens its grip on the city with electoral changes including a vetting process for all parliamentary candidates.

In an annual “work report” delivered to Beijing’s most important political meeting on Friday, Premier Li Keqiang also swore to “resolutely guard against and deter” interference by external forces, amid growing international alarm at Beijing’s attacks on pro-democracy voices.

Li also pledged to “resolutely deter any separatist activity” in Taiwan, and revealed significant economic and population goals for China’s future, including GDP growth above 6%.

Li delivered his speech to around 3,000 delegates of the National People’s Congress on the first day of its annual week-long meeting, which along with a parallel meeting is known as the “two sessions”. The NPC is China’s rubber-stamping legislative body, and has confirmed plans to make radical changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system, to ensure only “patriots” – Chinese Communist party loyalists – can govern Hong Kong.

A draft decision was submitted to the NPC on Friday morning, standing committee vice-chair, Wang Chen, said.

The text is not yet public, but Chen flagged major changes to parts of Hong Kong’s mini constitution which govern elections, including a change in the size of the committee which elects the chief executive. They would also grant the committee new powers to “directly participate in the nomination of all legislative council members”, and establish “a qualification vetting system for the whole process”.

“The rioting and turbulence that occurred in the Hong Kong society reveals that the existing electoral system in the HKSAR has clear loopholes and deficiencies,” Chen said, according to state media.

“Necessary measures must be taken to improve the electoral system and remove existing institutional risks to ensure the administration of Hong Kong by Hong Kong people with patriots as the main body.”

Willie Lam, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Agence France-Presse the proposed vetting committee would allow Beijing authorities and Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, to disqualify any candidates not deemed to be patriotic, and “effectively wipe out any remaining opposition”.

The NPC announced Hong Kong’s national security law at last year’s meeting in May, and it has already been used to arrest or charge around 100 people, including 47 people charged for holding unofficial primary polls in preparation of the election, which was postponed to September 2021. On Friday Hong Kong media cited unnamed sources that the election would be delayed for another year, as China pushed through its electoral changes.

Chen’s announcement followed a speech by Li, who reiterated warnings that China would “resolutely deter any separatist activity seeking ‘Taiwan independence’”. Despite the Communist party never having ruled Taiwan, Beijing considers it to be a part of China, and has promised “reunification”, by force if necessary. It has dramatically increased military activity near and towards Taiwan in the past year.

Li said China was committed “to promoting the peaceful growth of relations across the Taiwan Strait and China’s reunification”, but would be “highly vigilant” about any activities it deemed separatist.

Taiwan’s government, formed at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, maintains it has always been an independent country and has no need to seek any split. Taiwanese people are mostly and increasingly opposed to Beijing rule.

Li’s wide-ranging speech also confirmed major domestic initiatives ahead of the formal launch of China’s 14th five-year-plan.

Economic growth targets have been reintroduced after the Covid-19 pandemic prompted Beijing to abandon them last year for the first time in decades. Li set China’s growth rate target at “over 6%”, taking into account the recovery of economic activity. China was the only major economy to grow last year, expanding by 2.3%, and also claimed to have completely eradicated poverty this year.

“In setting this target, we have taken into account the recovery of economic activity,” Li said.

Based on many analysts’ forecasts, China’s economy is expected to grow around 8-9% this year, OCBC Bank’s head of Greater China research, Tommy Xie, told AFP.

Li said the government will also aim to create more than 11m new jobs in urban centres, 2m more than last year’s target. In addressing an emerging ageing population crisis, Li said the government would also work to achieve “an appropriate birth rate”. Preliminary figures show that the birth rate fell 15% last year, and in 2018 official estimates predicted 20% of the population would be over 60 by 2025. Li said Beijing would “promote the realisation of moderate fertility”, demonstrating a relaxation of its once tight control over families with the one-child policy.

Li also confirmed a “phased” raising of the statutory retirement age, which has remained unchanged for four decades at 60 for men and 55 for women, which is far earlier than most developed countries.

Li also said the country would create a plan to have emissions peak by 2030, and push to develop new energy sources, including nuclear energy, in order to fulfil the promise made by Xi Jinping in September that China would reach carbon neutrality before 2060.

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