Hong Kong lawmakers can be largely ceremonial after the reshuffle of China: ex-US diplomat

A former US diplomat said China’s latest move to tighten its control over Hong Kong will transform the semi-autonomous legislature into something “largely ceremonial”.

“I think we will see in the years to come the Legislative Council … becomes a largely ceremonial organization – similar to the legislative apparatus in Beijing,” said Kurt Tong, former US consul general and head of mission in Hong Kong and Macau, told CNBCs ” Squawk Box Asia “on Friday.

Beijing on Thursday approved a draft decision to change Hong Kong’s electoral system. The proposed measures will change the size and composition of the Hong Kong legislative and electoral committee.

In response, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement on Thursday: “This is Beijing’s latest move to undermine the space for democratic debate in Hong Kong, contrary to China’s own promises.”

Meanwhile, the US State Department condemned the move, saying the changes were “a direct attack on Hong Kong’s autonomy, freedoms and democratic processes.”

Hong Kong’s Legislative Council or LegCo.

Lui Siu Wai | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

Hong Kong is a former British colony that was returned to Chinese rule in 1997. It is governed by a “one country, two systems” framework that gives the city more autonomy than other cities in mainland China, including legislative and independent judicial power.

City guide Carrie Lam said in a statement Thursday that Beijing’s proposed changes aim to ensure that Hong Kong is ruled by “patriots”.

That will “solve the problem that the LegCo has done everything politically in recent years,” she said, referring to the Legislative Council. It will “effectively deal with the reckless movements or internal rifts that have torn Hong Kong apart,” she added.

Hong Kong lawmakers “previously had limited ability to legislate. Now I think they will be even less able to legislate,” said Tong, who is now a partner at the consultancy The Asia Group.

The last proposed election changes come to China in less than a year passed a controversial national security law in Hong Kong – bypassing city lawmakers. The law followed months of protests for democracy in Hong Kong that sometimes turned violent.

Tong said Beijing aims to “calm the political opposition” but “not terribly change the way Hong Kong works as an economy.”

That means Hong Kong has so far retained features that made it an international business hub, such as connectivity with the rest of the world and a largely independent judiciary, Tong said.

Nonetheless, even if businesses do not leave the city, the business community is watching the situation in Hong Kong closely “with some degree of concern,” he added.

“I think the national security law was the biggest problem in terms of the judiciary,” Tong said. “There are reasons to be concerned, but I think people just have to watch and see what happens.”

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