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US, Australia term electoral changes in Hong Kong as ‘assault on democracy’

WASHINGTON DC, USA: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has condemned China’s approval of sweeping changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system, calling the move an “assault on democracy” and a “direct attack” on the autonomy promised for the territory when it was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

In a statement on Thursday, just hours after Beijing approved its plan to veto candidates for political office in Hong Kong, Blinken said the measures ran counter to the objective that Hong Kong elections “should progress towards universal suffrage”.

“These actions deny Hong Kongers a voice in their own governance by limiting political participation, reducing democratic representation and stifling political debate,” Blinken said.

He urged Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to allow the already delayed September Legislative Council elections to proceed and “ensure that all candidates are included in a transparent and credible manner”.

There have been reports the elections could be postponed again as Hong Kong considers the changes in the vetting process of candidates.

Blinken did not say if Washington was considering additional steps in response to the measures. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and other officials are already subject to sanctions following the crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in 2019.

The United States on Thursday condemned the changes and forecast “difficult” talks with China’s top diplomats next week.

Beijing has said the changes in Hong Kong are necessary to ensure only “patriotic” officials run the city’s government.

At last year’s National People’s Congress, the rubber-stamp parliament passed the national security law, which was imposed on June 30.

Meanwhile, Australian foreign minister Marise Payne on Friday expressed serious concern at Chinese changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system, saying the reforms weakened Hong Kong’s democratic institutions.

“It is essential that Hong Kong people have channels to exercise their fundamental freedom of political expression,” Payne said in a statement.

China’s parliament on Thursday approved a draft decision to change Hong Kong’s electoral system, further reducing democratic representation in the city’s institutions and introducing a mechanism to vet politicians’ loyalty to Beijing.

There are about 100,000 Australian citizens living in Hong Kong, one of Australia’s largest expatriate communities.

Former Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui arrived in Australia on Monday, after fleeing Hong Kong late last year, and said he planned to lobby for the pro-democracy movement.

China’s national legislature has approved a package of changes to Hong Kong’s electoral process that gives the central government in Beijing tighter control over the city’s legislature, a move critics say will further diminish the city’s pro-democracy movement.

The ceremonial National People’s Congress on Thursday approved the changes by a vote of 2,895 to nothing, with just one abstention.

The changes include expanding the size of Hong Kong’s electoral commission, which selects the city’s chief executive and a number of members of the Legislative Council, from 1,200 to 1,500 members, and grants more voting power to the commission’s pro-Beijing members.

The plan also increases the number of seats in the Legislative Council from 70 to 90, and strips the voting rights of several lower-level district councillors, many of whom are pro-democracy supporters.

The proposed reforms would ensure the Hong Kong legislature is filled strictly with “patriots,” a term used last month by Xia Baolong, the director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council.

Hong Kong was scheduled to hold elections to the Legislative Council last September, but the government postponed them for a year citing the Covid-19 pandemic.