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China moves to eliminate Hong Kong opposition

Leo RAMIREZ
·4-min read

China moved Friday to grant itself veto powers over selecting Hong Kong's lawmakers, part of a campaign to eliminate dissent and ensure a "patriotic" government in the city following huge democracy rallies in 2019.

Legislation to allow China's communist rulers to vet all election candidates in Hong Kong was introduced at the opening of the nation's rubber-stamp parliament in Beijing.

It came a day after dozens of democracy campaigners in the financial hub -- including former lawmakers -- were jailed under a security law that was passed during last year's parliamentary session.

The new legislation includes a "qualification vetting system" that will promote "orderly political participation", parliamentary spokesman Wang Chen told reporters.

China had committed to giving Hong Kong a degree of autonomy when it reverted from British colonial rule in 1997.

But it began moving quickly to dismantle the financial hub's democratic pillars in response to huge and sometimes violent democracy rallies that paralysed the city throughout 2019.

- Nail in coffin -

The introduction of the vetting legislation -- expected to be approved next week -- was quickly interpreted as one of the final nails in the coffin of Hong Kong's democracy movement.

"If the measures are passed, as I'm sure they will be, then the voice of the opposition will be effectively silenced," said Willie Lam, China analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"This will effectively wipe out any remaining opposition."

The proposed rules drew swift international condemnation, with the United States and European Union saying that China was violating commitments it made before the 1997 handover.

The move constitutes "a direct attack on Hong Kong's autonomy, Hong Kong's freedoms and the democratic processes," US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.

"If implemented, these measures would drastically undermine Hong Kong democratic institutions" and run counter to promises to work towards universal suffrage, he said.

The European Union warned it could take additional steps against China in response.

"The EU calls on the authorities in Beijing to carefully consider the political and economic implications of any decision to reform the electoral system of Hong Kong that would undermine fundamental freedoms, political pluralism and democratic principles," an EU spokesperson said.

- Economic power -

The measure had been widely expected, with Beijing officials stating in the lead-up to the annual gathering of the National People's Congress that only "staunch patriots" -- those loyal to the Communist Party -- should be involved in governing Hong Kong.

The Chinese congress session opened with an annual address by Premier Li Keqiang, who made no mention of Hong Kong besides Communist Party boilerplate about the city continuing to enjoy a "high degree of autonomy".

The annual week-long gathering of roughly 3,000 delegates, held in the cavernous Great Hall of the People in Beijing, is China's biggest political event of the year.

The highly choreographed display is held to drive home the unquestioned domestic power of the Communist Party while updating China and the world on its economic, political, environment and foreign policy priorities.

The event takes place with China outpacing other major economies after bringing the coronavirus pandemic, which first emerged on its soil, under control through draconian lockdowns and mass testing.

Li said the government was aiming for 2021 growth in the world's second-biggest economy of "above 6 percent".

"In setting this target, we have taken into account the recovery of economic activity," Li told delegates in China's equivalent of a "state of the nation" address.

China's economy expanded just 2.3 percent in coronavirus-stunted 2020, but Li noted the country was still "the world's only major economy to achieve growth" last year.

Analysts believe China's economy could grow eight to nine percent this year.

China's finance ministry, meanwhile, revealed that the nation's military budget -- the world's second largest after the United States -- would increase 6.8 percent in 2021 to 1.36 trillion yuan ($210 billion).

But China's official budget number is widely believed to be lower than true spending.

Li made no direct mention of brittle ties with the United States, China's trading partner and geopolitical rival, with all eyes now on how the relationship may evolve under new US leader Joe Biden.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi holds a press conference on diplomatic affairs Sunday on the sidelines of the NPC session.

The gathering may consider a proposed revision to wildlife protection laws that would permanently ban eating most wildlife, amid the belief that the pandemic came from an animal host.

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