Hong Kong’s leader on Monday praised China’s plan to ensure only “patriots” remain in politics, denying the move was a purge of the opposition.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam ruled out any need to consult the public on the changes, as they were decreed by Beijing.
Legislation to vet all election candidates in Hong Kong is currently being discussed by China’s rubber-stamp parliament and is expected to be adopted on Thursday.
China has said only those deemed “patriotic” will be allowed to stand.
Critics say the radical overhaul of the city’s already limited democratic system will demolish what remains of the pro-democracy opposition and ensure only loyalists remain, an argument that Lam rejected on Monday.
“The improvements to the electoral system are not designed to favour someone, it is designed to ensure that whoever is administering Hong Kong is patriotic,” Lam, a pro-Beijing appointee, told reporters after returning from the gathering in Beijing.
“The decision is timely, necessary, lawful and constitutional, and the central authorities’ leadership and decision-making power are out of question.”
Authoritarian China promised Hong Kong would keep a degree of autonomy and certain freedoms when it reverted from British colonial rule in 1997.
The city has a partially elected legislature and China also promised to one day grant residents universal suffrage.
Critics had for years complained freedoms were being steadily eroded. Beijing then ramped up the dismantling of the financial hub’s democratic pillars in response to huge and sometimes violent democracy rallies that paralysed the city throughout 2019.
Hong Kong was poised to hold direct elections for half the city legislature’s seats last summer but delayed the polls for a year, citing the coronavirus.
On Monday, Lam hinted a further delay was likely given the sweeping changes Beijing is planning.
“We are not able to tell you now whether the September election can proceed as scheduled,” she said, adding the priority was to implement whatever changes Beijing decides on first.
She said her government would launch an “intensive” drive to explain the changes.
But she said there was no need for a “so-called extensive public consultation”, arguing the transformation of Hong Kong’s political system was “urgent” and was being spearheaded by the central government.
Hong Kong has never been a democracy – something that has fuelled protests and resentment in the territory towards Beijing.
But it maintained a measure of choice, allowing a vocal opposition to contest certain local elections and maintain a minority presence.
When Hong Kongers were allowed to vote, they tended to return high counts for candidates advocating greater democracy.
In recent years authorities have ramped up the disqualification of politicians either sitting in the city’s semi-elected legislature or standing as candidates, based on their political views.
Beijing also imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong last year, snuffing out protest and clobbering the pro-democracy opposition.
Many of the city’s most prominent democracy campaigners have since been arrested, jailed or fled overseas.