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The United States has condemned China’s “continuing assault on democratic institutions in Hong Kong”, after Beijing announced plans to change the electoral system there.

China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) unveiled the plans on Friday.

One proposal would require all candidates standing for Hong Kong’s assembly to be approved by a committee of members loyal to Beijing.

The move follows the imposition of a tough security law last year.

Critics say Beijing is crushing dissent and removing the “one country, two systems” agreement it made with the UK.

Under the agreement, Hong Kong, a former British colony, was allowed to continue with its own legal system and have rights including free speech and freedom of the press.

Fears that that model is being eroded led to huge pro-democracy protests in 2019. Some turned violent and Beijing imposed the National Security Law, which it said would target “sedition” and bring stability.

Thousands of lawmakers have gathered for the annual NPC meeting in Beijing. The rubber-stamp parliament is expected to also discuss and approve economic growth targets and environmental policies from the central government.

How have the US and others reacted?
State department spokesman Ned Price said the move was “a direct attack on Hong Kong’s autonomy, Hong Kong’s freedoms and the democratic processes”.

“If implemented these measures would drastically undermine Hong Kong democratic institutions,” he said.

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Mr Price also said Washington was working with allies at “galvanising collective action” against alleged Chinese human rights abuses of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and “repression” in Hong Kong.

Earlier the EU called on Beijing to “carefully consider the political and economic implications on any decision to reform the electoral system of Hong Kong that would undermine fundamental freedoms, political pluralism and democratic principles”.

The UK Foreign Office, meanwhile, urged China’s authorities to “uphold their commitments to the people of Hong Kong, including respecting their fundamental rights and freedoms, and Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy”.

Lord Chris Patten, former British governor of Hong Kong, went further, saying China’s Communist Party had “taken the biggest step so far to obliterate Hong Kong’s freedoms and aspirations for greater democracy under the rule of law”.

What’s planned for Hong Kong?
NPC vice-chairman Wang Chen told lawmakers that changes were needed as “the rioting and turbulence that occurred in Hong Kong society reveals that the existing electoral system has clear loopholes and deficiencies”. He said “risks in the system” needed to be removed to ensure “patriots” were in charge.

Premier Li Keqiang warned that China would “resolutely guard against and deter” interference by external forces in Hong Kong’s affairs.

The week-long NPC session will discuss the elections issue and no text has yet been made public, although Mr Wang and media sources did set out some areas to be discussed.

The city’s heavily pro-Beijing electoral committee would get new powers over the parliament, or Legislative Council (LegCo).

The committee would effectively be able to vet all LegCo candidates and elect many of its members, diluting the number directly elected by the public.

Willie Lam, China analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the AFP news agency that if the new NPC measures passed as he expected they would “effectively wipe out any remaining opposition”.

How has the pro-democracy campaign been targeted?
The Basic Law, agreed with the UK before the return of sovereignty in 1997, allowed for an “ultimate aim” of universal suffrage, including the choice of leader, or chief executive.

Subsequent NPC Standing Committee rulings, however, ensured Beijing would have control over who was appointed.

Pro-democracy moves continued and came to a head with mass rallies in 2019. Last year, Beijing imposed the security law.

Scores of arrests have been made. Last week, 47 pro-democracy activists were charged with “subversion” under the new law and could face life in prison.

What is the NPC and what will it do?
The annual meeting has nearly 3,000 delegates representing provinces, autonomous regions, and the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.

While the NPC in theory is the country’s most powerful institution, in reality the lawmakers usually end up approving plans and policies decided beforehand by the central government.

Has China lifted 100 million out of poverty?
On Friday, Mr Li said the country had set its economic growth target at above 6%. and updated the NPC on climate control targets.

Over the next few days, the congress will also formally approve the 14th Five-Year-Plan — the economic strategy for the country.

President Xi Jinping is also likely to highlight China’s achievement in “eradicating absolute poverty” — something the country announced last week.

Hong Kong has seen several months of pro-democracy protests — and China appears to be tightening its grip.

The protests began in June 2019 over plans — later put on ice, and finally withdrawn in September — that would have allowed extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China. They then spread to reflect wider demands for democratic reform, and an inquiry into alleged police brutality.

Now, China is proposing to introduce a new national security law, which critics believe could be used to crack down on rights and political activists.

This is not all happening in a vacuum. There’s a lot of important context — some of it stretching back decades — that helps explain what is going on.

Hong Kong has a special status…
It’s important to remember that Hong Kong is significantly different from other Chinese cities. To understand this, you need to look at its history.

It was a British colony for more than 150 years — part of it, Hong Kong island, was ceded to the UK after a war in 1842. Later, China also leased the rest of Hong Kong — the New Territories — to the British for 99 years.

It became a busy trading port, and its economy took off in the 1950s as it became a manufacturing hub.

The territory was also popular with migrants and dissidents fleeing instability, poverty or persecution in mainland China.

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Read more about Hong Kong’s history
Then, in the early 1980s, as the deadline for the 99-year-lease approached, Britain and China began talks on the future of Hong Kong — with the communist government in China arguing that all of Hong Kong should be returned to Chinese rule.

The two sides signed a treaty in 1984 that would see Hong Kong return to China in 1997, under the principle of “one country, two systems”.

This meant that while becoming part of one country with China, Hong Kong would enjoy “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs” for 50 years.

As a result, Hong Kong has its own legal system and borders, and rights including freedom of assembly, free speech and freedom of the press are protected.

For example, it is one of the few places in Chinese territory where people can commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, where the military opened fire on unarmed protesters in Beijing.

…but things are changing
Hong Kong still enjoys freedoms not seen in mainland China — but they are widely thought to be on the decline.

Rights groups have accused China of meddling in Hong Kong, citing examples such as legal rulings that have disqualified pro-democracy legislators, and the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers, and a tycoon — who all eventually re-emerged in custody in China.

There are also accusations that press and academic freedoms have been deteriorating. In March, China effectively expelled several US journalists — but also prohibited them from working in Hong Kong.

The public broadcaster RTHK has come under pressure from Hong Kong’s government, first for broadcasting an interview with the World Health Organization about Taiwan, and then for targeting police in its satirical news show “Headliner”.

The local examinations body also came under fire for a world history question about relations between Japan and China, with the government demanding the exam question be invalidated. The government said it was a professional, rather than political, decision, but many academics expressed concern.

Another sticking point has been democratic reform.

Hong Kong’s leader, the chief executive, is currently elected by a 1,200-member election committee — a mostly pro-Beijing body chosen by just 6% of eligible voters.

Not all the 70 members of the territory’s lawmaking body, the Legislative Council, are directly chosen by Hong Kong’s voters. Most seats not directly elected are occupied by pro-Beijing lawmakers.

Some elected members have even been disbarred after Beijing issued a controversial legal ruling that effectively disqualified them.

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Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, says that ultimately both the leader, and the Legislative Council, should be elected in a more democratic way — but there’s been disagreement over what this should look like.

The Chinese government said in 2014 it would allow voters to choose their leaders from a list approved by a pro-Beijing committee, but critics called this a “sham democracy” and it was voted down in Hong Kong’s legislature.

In 28 years’ time in 2047, the Basic Law expires — and what happens to Hong Kong’s autonomy after that is unclear.

Most people in Hong Kong don’t see themselves as Chinese
While most people in Hong Kong are ethnic Chinese, and although Hong Kong is part of China, a majority of people there don’t identify as Chinese.

Surveys from the University of Hong Kong show that most people identify themselves as “Hong Kongers” — only 11% would call themselves “Chinese” — and 71% of people say they do not feel proud about being Chinese citizens.

The difference is particularly pronounced amongst the young.

“The younger the respondents, the less likely they feel proud of becoming a national citizen of China, and also the more negative they are toward the Central Government’s policies on Hong Kong,” the university’s public opinion programme says.

Hong Kongers have described legal, social and cultural differences — and the fact Hong Kong was a separate colony for 150 years — as reasons why they don’t identify with their compatriots in mainland China.

There has also been a rise in anti-mainland Chinese sentiment in Hong Kong in recent years, with people complaining about rude tourists disregarding local norms or driving up the cost of living.

Some young activists have even called for Hong Kong’s independence from China, something that alarms the Beijing government.

Hong Kongers know how to protest

There’s a rich history of dissent in Hong Kong, stretching back further even than the past few years.

In 1966, demonstrations broke out after the Star Ferry Company decided to increase its fares. The protests escalated into riots, a full curfew was declared and hundreds of troops took to the streets.

Do protests ever work in China?
Young and unhappy in HK
Protests have continued since 1997, but now the biggest ones tend to be of a political nature — and bring demonstrators into conflict with mainland China’s position.

While Hong Kongers have a degree of autonomy, they have little liberty in the polls, meaning protests are one of the few ways they can make their opinions heard.

As a result, many see taking to the streets as their only way of forcing change.

And, in the past, some protests have been successful. In 2003, up to 500,000 people took to the streets to protest against a controversial security bill the Hong Kong government was trying to pass. The local government also backed down over “patriotic education” classes following rallies against the move.

However, the Chinese government has adopted a harder stance in recent years, particularly with any movements it views as a direct challenge to its own authority.

In 2014, demonstrators took to the streets peacefully for several weeks, demanding Hong Kongers be given the right to elect their own leader. But the so-called Umbrella movement eventually fizzled out with no concessions from Beijing.