Foreign Minister Marise Payne has expressed concern after China’s legislature endorsed the ruling Communist Party’s move to tighten control over Hong Kong by reducing the role of its public in picking the territory’s leaders.

The measure adds to a crackdown against a protest movement in Hong Kong calling for greater democracy.

Ms Payne said the move weakened democratic institutions in the territory.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said China is weakening democratic institutions in Hong Kong. (9News)

“Australia is seriously concerned about changes by Beijing to Hong Kong’s electoral system, which weaken its democratic institutions,” she said.

“It is essential that Hong Kong people have channels to exercise their fundamental freedom of political expression.”

The crackdown by Beijing has prompted accusations Beijing is eroding the autonomy it promised when the former British colony was returned to China in 1997 and is hurting its status as a global financial centre.

The new measures in Hong Kong have added to irritants in relations with Washington, Europe and other governments that also include trade, technology and the party’s treatment of ethnic minorities.

The National People’s Congress (NPC) voted 2895-0, with one abstention, in support of the plan to give a pro-Beijing committee power to appoint more of Hong Kong’s legislators, reducing the number elected by the public. NPC members, who are appointed by the party, routinely endorse party plans by unanimous vote or overwhelming majorities.

President Xi Jinping and other leaders sat on stage in front of delegates as they cast votes electronically in the cavernous Great Hall of the People. The NPC has no real powers but the party uses its annual meeting, the year’s highest-profile political event, to showcase government plans and major decisions.

China President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang at the NPC. (AP)

The NPC also endorsed the ruling party’s latest five-year development blueprint, which calls for stepping up efforts to transform China into a more self-reliant technology manufacturer. That threatens to worsen strains with Washington and Europe over trade and market access.

The NPC focuses on domestic issues but increasingly is overshadowed by geopolitics as Mr Xi’s government pursues more assertive trade and strategic policies and feuds with Washington, Australia and others over the coronavirus, conflicting claims to the South China Sea and accusations of spying and technology theft.

Also on Thursday, the country’s second-ranked leader, Premier Li Keqiang, said economic growth might be faster than this year’s official target of “above 6 per cent” he announced last week, which surprised forecasters who expect an expansion of at least 8 per cent. But he said Beijing is more concerned about firming up its recovery from the coronavirus and keeping growth steady.

China was the only major economy to grow last year while the United States, Europe and Japan struggled with renewed coronavirus outbreaks. Chinese growth accelerated to 6.5 per cent over a year earlier in the final quarter of 2020.

“There may be even faster growth,” Mr Li said at a news conference. However, he said, “we must avert wild swings in economic performance.”

The NPC delegates included members of China’s military. (AP)

Under the changes in Hong Kong, a 1500-member Election Committee will pick the territory’s chief executive and an unspecified “relatively large” number of members of its 90-seat legislature.

Committee members would come from five segments of society, including business and political figures. That would give pro-Beijing forces more influence than a popular vote would. Hong Kong news reports said earlier the committee will pick one-third of the members of the Legislative Council, or LegCo.

Beijing wants to see “patriots ruling Hong Kong,” the premier said. He said the changes would “safeguard national security” in the territory and support “prosperity and stability.”

Britain’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said the move is “contrary to the promises made by China itself” about Hong Kong. He said Beijing is trying to “hollow out” space for democratic debate.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. (AP)

“This can only further undermine confidence and trust in China living up to its international responsibilities and legal obligations, as a leading member of the international community,” Mr Raab said in a statement.

The Hong Kong leader, Carrie Lam, welcomed the change and said in a statement it will allow the territory to “resolve the problem of the LegCo making everything political in recent years and effectively deal with the reckless moves or internal rift that have torn Hong Kong apart.”

Last year, the party used the NPC session to impose a national security law on Hong Kong in response to the protests that began in 2019. Under that law, 47 former legislators and other pro-democracy figures have been arrested on subversion charges that carry a possible maximum penalty of life in prison.

“The Hong Kong people will be disenfranchised” under the latest changes, said Emily Lau, a former Hong Kong legislator.

“Beijing wants to exert very tight control,” said Lau, a member of the city’s Democratic Party. “It’s not democracy.”

This content first appear on 9news

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