Britain accused China of breaching the joint declaration guaranteeing Hong Kong’s freedoms after Beijing passed a law that would bar candidates from elections on the grounds of insufficient patriotism.
Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, said Beijing had broken international commitments after President Xi Jinping signed the new measures into law after it was unanimously approved by China's parliament on Tuesday.
“Today China enacted changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system which are a clear breach of the joint declaration – undermining the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong and breaking Beijing’s international obligations,” he wrote on Twitter.
The legislation establishes a committee to carry out background checks on anyone wanting to enter Hong Kong politics and review whether would-be candidates are sufficiently patriotic to hold electoral office.
The qualification review committee will receive reports from Hong Kong’s National Security Committee and National Security Police on every candidate. Its decisions will be final and impossible to appeal.
The law also heavily dilutes the power of opposition politicians by slashing the number of directly elected legislators from 35 to 20 while expanding the size of the body from 70 to 90 seats.
Of the remainder, 40 will be appointed by a committee and 30 by “functional constituencies,” or trade groups. Both are historically loyal to Beijing.
Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, said the law would mitigate "the excessive politicisation in society and the internal rift that has torn Hong Kong apart”.
"Hong Kong's institutions of political power and governance must always be firmly in the hands of those who love the motherland and Hong Kong," said the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, which formulates Beijing's policies for the financial hub.
But pro-democracy campaigners described it as a drastic step backwards designed to further constrain the movement for electoral reform.
“I think this is a backward step, because the progress we had made in the past 20 odd years is gone. It is now even worse than when Hong Kong returned to China,” said Lo Kin-hei, chairman of the Democratic Party.
“Most of the people who supported the pro-democracy camp for so many years are keen for Hong Kong to have fair elections and universal suffrage. When we see the proposal and changes of electoral methods, we know that we are getting farther and farther away from getting the universal suffrage we hope for, so I think most of the Hong Kong people will not be happy about it,” he added.
Hong Kong’s autonomy was guaranteed under a “one country, two systems” agreement enshrined in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration signed by then Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The first elections under the new system are to take place in December.