China's top lawmakers yesterday agreed to extend the term of Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo) by at least a year, putting an end to a legislative vacuum in the territory, state media reported.
LegCo elections were initially scheduled for Sept 6, but were postponed by a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"After Sept 30, 2020, the sixth Legislative Council of (Hong Kong) will continue to perform its duties for no less than one year until the beginning of the term of the seventh Legislative Council of Hong Kong," the National People's Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) said at the end of its four-day meeting, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam had on July 31 used a colonial-era emergency law to postpone the election to Sept 5 next year, citing the pandemic.
The city yesterday reported 33 new coronavirus infections, a marked drop from the spike in numbers in recent weeks.
The decision by the NPCSC was welcomed by the Cabinet-level Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) and Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong.
It shows the central government and 1.4 billion people of China "have always cared for, cherished and been the most considerate towards Hong Kong", the HKMAO said, according to Xinhua.
The central government's Hong Kong liaison office said the decision ensures society concentrates on getting the coronavirus outbreak under control.
Mrs Lam expressed gratitude to the NPCSC for its decision, saying that it puts an end to a possible legislative vacuum in the city should the LegCo be dissolved before a new one is elected.
"(The decision) not only maintains the constitutional and legal order of the HKSAR (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region), but also ensures the normal governance of the HKSAR government and the normal operation of society," she said in a statement.
"It demonstrates once again the care and support of the central government for the HKSAR."
The decision, however, did not touch on whether the four opposition lawmakers barred from standing in the next elections will still be allowed to keep their current seats.
They had been disqualified from running after election officials said their calls for foreign governments to impose sanctions on Beijing and Hong Kong had violated the new national security law.
On Aug 3, the city's only NPCSC representative, Mr Tam Yiu Chung, told a radio programme that it is contradictory to allow the four lawmakers to keep their seats if they were barred by election officials from standing in the Sept 6 polls.
His comments come as Hong Kong reels from the effects of the sweeping national security legislation under which tycoon Jimmy Lai, publisher of the Apple Daily newspaper, as well as nine other people were arrested on Monday.
The law - imposed on June 30, just over a year after protests first rocked the city - has dealt a body blow to the pro-democracy movement. It has also drawn condemnation from the West, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling Lai a "patriot" on Monday and saying his arrest showed Beijing had "eviscerated" Hong Kong's freedoms and eroded the rights of its people. Beijing has often referred to Lai as a "traitor".
With the new security law, anything Beijing considers secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces can be punished, with the maximum sentence being life imprisonment.