Meanwhile, 21 Hong Kong activists will remain in custody after a court rejected requests by some for bail and others withdrew their applications in a widely monitored case on charges of attempts to subvert government.

Zhang Xiaoming (C), Executive Deputy Director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council, gestures in front of journalists at the end of a State Council press conference on Hong Kong electoral reform in Beijing on March 12, 2021.
Zhang Xiaoming (C), Executive Deputy Director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council, gestures in front of journalists at the end of a State Council press conference on Hong Kong electoral reform in Beijing on March 12, 2021. (AFP)

Beijing’s top official in charge of Hong Kong policy has likened China’s plans for electoral reform in the semi-autonomous territory and the imposition of a security law to a “combination of punches” to quell unrest in the southern city.

Hong Kong was rocked by massive and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests in 2019 against Beijing's encroachment on its unique freedoms.  

The Chinese government has since cracked down on the opposition, arresting dozens of activists and smothering the street movement with a draconian national security law. 

On Thursday it moved to ensure only "patriots" run the city, when an annual rubber-stamp parliament voted for sweeping changes to Hong Kong's electoral system, including powers to veto candidates.

The plan was swiftly pilloried by the US, EU and Britain, the city's former colonial ruler which handed control of the territory to Beijing in 1997 under a special "one country, two systems" arrangement.

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'A combination of punches'

A Beijing official in charge of Hong Kong policy told reporters on Friday the "chaos" of recent years showed that the city's electoral system has "clear loopholes and shortcomings".

Alongside the national security law, the move represents "a combination of punches, to... effectively manage the ongoing chaos", said Zhang Xiaoming, of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office.

The problem in Hong Kong is a "political one", he said, repeating an often-used, but unproven, allegation by Beijing that outside forces are fomenting disruption in the financial hub.

"It is a contest between a seizure of power and countering the seizure, subversion and counter-subversion, infiltration and counter-infiltration," Zhang said.

"We have no room for concession on this issue."

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A minimally invasive surgery

With changes, Hong Kong's influential Election Committee, which selects the city's leader and is already stacked with Beijing loyalists, will be expanded to 1,500 representatives, up from 1,200. 

"To be precise, this is a minimally invasive surgery," Zhang said of the reform proposals.

"Minimally invasive surgery is characterised by small wounds, deep penetration, and quicker postoperative recovery."

He insisted "you will still be able to hear different voices" in Hong Kong government.

After the proposed reform was approved criticism has poured in from the United States and the European Union.

The move is "a direct attack on autonomy promised to people in Hong Kong under the Sino-British Joint Declaration" before the handover of the territory in 1997, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

Blinken also urged Hong Kong to go ahead with September elections, which the city's pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam has hinted will be delayed again.

The EU said the decision would have a "significant impact on democratic accountability and political pluralism in Hong Kong."

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21 activists remain in custody

Meanwhile, twenty-one Hong Kong activists will remain in custody after a court on Friday rejected requests by some for bail and others withdrew their applications in a widely monitored case where they are charged with conspiracy to subvert the government.

The charges against a total of 47 opposition figures represent the most sweeping use yet of Hong Kong's new security law, which punishes what it broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.

Since the group of 47 were charged around two weeks ago, the court has heard a series of requests for bail. 

While most requests were rejected, the court approved some applications, prompting immediate appeals from prosecutors to overturn some of those approvals. 

Just five of the group are currently out on bail.

Of the 21 defendants in court on Friday, Judge Victor So rejected 11 applications while the rest were withdrawn by the defendants. 

The 47 activists are accused of organising and participating in an unofficial, non-binding primary poll in July 2020 that authorities said was part of a "vicious plot" to "overthrow" the government.

The vote was aimed at selecting the strongest opposition candidates for a legislative council election that the government later postponed, citing the coronavirus.

Hong Kong laws restrict media coverage of the content of bail hearings. 

The next hearing in the case is on May 31.

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies