Hong Kong’s government has announced a sweeping overhaul of its local elections, slashing the number of directly elected seats and imposing a new vetting mechanism for candidates. The move is widely seen as a further blow to the city’s already shrinking democratic space and civil liberties.

The changes, which were approved by China’s rubber-stamp parliament in March, will affect the composition and functions of the 1,500-member Election Committee, which selects the city’s leader, and the 70-seat Legislative Council (LegCo), which passes laws and scrutinizes the government.

Under the new system, the Election Committee will be expanded to 1,500 members, with more seats allocated to pro-Beijing groups and sectors. The committee will also gain the power to nominate and elect 40 members of the LegCo, up from zero. The number of directly elected seats in the LegCo will be reduced from 35 to 20, while the remaining 10 seats will be filled by representatives of district councils, which are currently dominated by pro-democracy candidates.

The government also introduced a new screening mechanism for candidates, requiring them to obtain nominations from at least two members of each of the five sectors of the Election Committee, and to pledge allegiance to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, and the principle of “one country, two systems.” Candidates will also have to pass a review by a newly established Candidate Eligibility Review Committee, which will consult with the national security department of the Hong Kong police and the Committee for Safeguarding National Security, both of which are under Beijing’s direct control.

The government claims that the overhaul is necessary to ensure that only “patriots” can govern Hong Kong and to prevent foreign interference and subversion. However, critics argue that the changes are aimed at eliminating any opposition voices and dissenting views from the political arena, and at cementing Beijing’s authoritarian rule over the former British colony.

The overhaul comes amid a relentless crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and civil society since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the city last year. Dozens of activists, journalists, lawmakers and academics have been arrested or charged under the law, which bans secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Many others have fled into exile or gone into hiding.

The international community has condemned the electoral changes as a violation of Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a treaty that guaranteed the city a high degree of autonomy until 2047. The United States, the European Union, Britain and other countries have imposed sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for undermining Hong Kong’s democracy and human rights.

Hong Kong’s people have also expressed their discontent and defiance through various forms of resistance, such as boycotting the elections, staging protests and strikes, or casting blank or invalid ballots. However, with the shrinking space for dissent and the increasing risks of prosecution, many fear that their voices will be silenced and their aspirations for democracy will be crushed.

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