As Hong Kong heads to the polls for the first time since the introduction of new electoral laws, we look at how the semi-autonomous city has been governing itself.

Hong Kong heads to the polls on Sunday for the first time since electoral laws were changed to give Beijing more control over who is elected to Hong Kong’s legislature.

Following months of large protests in 2019, Beijing tightened its grip over the semi-autonomous city and launched a crackdown on dissent that saw a number of Hong Kong’s opposition activists and politicians either in jail or awaiting trial.

The new electoral laws expand the total number of seats in the Legislative Council from 70 to 90, but reduce the number of directly elected lawmakers from 35 to 20. Most of the legislature will be appointed by an Election Committee, which will also be responsible for vetting candidates to ensure – as China itself has stated - that only “patriots” can rule the city. 

Democracy activists and western governments have accused China of using the new rules to suppress the political opposition.

For these reasons, analysts expect the turnout at the polls to be quite low. Polls by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute in November found that only 52 percent of respondents planned to vote — which would be the lowest turnout in three decades.

But how do Hong Kong’s autonomy and democracy work? Here’s a breakdown.

Why is Hong Kong partially independent from China?

Hong Kong is a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China.

After the British government handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, it was agreed the region would be allowed considerable political autonomy for fifty years under a framework known as “one country, two systems.” This national unification policy was drawn up to help Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan integrate with China while preserving their economic, social and political systems.

How does it govern itself?

Hong Kong has a legislative council whose function is to debate and enact the laws and budgets put forward by the city’s executive branch.

The territory’s Basic Law serves as its de-facto constitution, which enshrines the city’s “capitalist system and way of life”, while granting it a “high degree” of executive, legislative, and judicial independence until 2047. Under the Basic Law, citizens of Hong Kong are guaranteed freedom of the press, religion, assembly and expression. In practice however, Beijing curbs some of these rights.

The mainland has always exerted considerable influence through loyalists, which has been increasing in the last few years. Beijing can interpret Hong Kong’s basic law, and all changes to Hong Kong’s political system have to be approved by both the Hong Kong and Chinese governments. 

 What does its ‘special administrative’ status mean then?

While Beijing remains in control of diplomacy and defense in the region, Hong Kong can forge its own external relations in other areas, including culture and tourism.

Some observers are concerned about whether Hong Kong will maintain its status as a global commercial and financial hub while its democracy declines.

Source: TRT World