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Hong Kong legislature moves closer to pass electoral reforms

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong’s legislature on Thursday moved closer to amending electoral laws that would drastically reduce the public’s ability to vote and increase the number of pro-Beijing lawmakers making decisions for the city.

The second reading of the bill was passed by a 40-2 vote, with the only two non-establishment lawmakers voting against. The bill is expected to be voted on again during the third reading, but little or no opposition is expected.

Once approved, it will empower the city’s national security department to check the backgrounds of potential candidates for public office and a new committee will be set up to ensure those candidates are “patriotic.”

The number of seats in Hong Kong’s legislature will be expanded to 90, with 40 of them elected by a largely pro-Beijing election committee. The number of legislators elected directly by Hong Kong voters will be cut to 20, from the previous 35.

The legislators are largely pro-Beijing after their pro-democracy colleagues resigned en masse last year in protest over the ousting of four lawmakers deemed to be insufficiently loyal to Beijing.

Pro-Beijing lawmakers lauded the bill during the debate on Wednesday and Thursday, saying that reforms would prevent those not loyal to Hong Kong from running for office.

Some pointed out that multiple bills that impact people’s livelihoods have been passed with more ease this year compared to in 2020, when pro-democracy lawmakers would at times filibuster or behave disruptively during meetings to stall the passage of bills that they disagreed with.

The changes to Hong Kong’s elections come as Beijing further tightens control over the semi-autonomous city that saw months of anti-government protest and political strife in 2019.

Authorities have arrested and charged most of the city’s outspoken pro-democracy advocates, such as Joshua Wong, who was a student leader of 2014 protests, as well as media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who founded the Apple Daily newspaper.

China’s rubber-stamp parliament in March endorsed changes to the city’s electoral system, which then led to Hong Kong’s proposals.

They are the latest in a string of moves to ensure people elected to office or serving the city are loyal to Beijing. An amendment the legislature approved earlier this month requires the city’s over 400 district councilors — who mainly deal with municipal matters — to take an oath pledging loyalty to Hong Kong and to upholding its mini-constitution.

The oath was previously required only of legislators and government officials such as the chief executive.

Zen Soo, The Associated Press