Hong Kong plunged further into crisis on Wednesday as a new law imposed by Beijing allowing the disqualification of “unpatriotic” opposition members prompted the entire pro-democracy caucus to announce their resignation.
Four sitting legislators were disqualified with immediate effect, with the move heralded as the end of political opposition in the city and “the death knell of Hong Kong’s democracy fight”.
The measure, passed by China’s highest legislative body on Wednesday, bars anyone from Hong Kong’s legislative council who supports independence, refuses to recognise Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong, seeks help from “foreign countries or foreign forces to interfere in the affairs of the region” or commits “other acts that endanger national security”.
Minutes after the disqualifying legislation was announced by Chinese state media, the Hong Kong government released a statement disqualifying four pro-democracy legislators. Among those were the Civic party’s Alvin Yeung, Kwok Ka-ki and Dennis Kwok and Kenneth Leung of the Professionals Guild, lawmakers who had already been barred from running in legislative elections originally scheduled for September.
On Wednesday afternoon the remaining 15 pro-democracy legislators appeared before the press, holding hands and chanting “Hong Kong add oil, together we stand!”, and announced they would hand in their resignation letters on Thursday.
“This is an actual act by Beijing to sound the death knell of Hong Kong’s democracy fight,” said legislator Claudia Mo. “From now on, anyone they find to be politically incorrect or unpatriotic or simply not likeable to look at – they can just oust you.”
The camp’s convenor, Wu Chi-wai, accused the government of destroying Hong Kong’s separation of powers and giving up on the mini-constitution, the basic law. He said it was the culmination of Beijing’s six-year-long plan to “extend their jurisdiction over Hong Kong completely”.
“As a result, we will say that ‘one country, two systems’ in Hong has come to an end.”
Beijing’s resolution gives Hong Kong authorities the ability to bypass the court system to unseat lawmakers – a measure critics say will be used against opposition lawmakers voicing dissent over Beijing’s increased control over the semi-autonomous territory.
“We need to have a political body which is composed of patriots,” Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, told reporters.
“There are four legislators who have been deemed … to not genuinely swear to uphold the basic law and not to have genuinely pledged their allegiance to Hong Kong SAR [special administrative region],” she said.
Referring to the decision-making body of China’s legislature, Lam said the “National People’s Congress standing committee [NPCSC] has made the decision and merely asked the SAR Hong Kong government to make the announcement”, adding that her government would quickly amend its domestic laws to be in line with the decision.
Lam sought to distance the disqualifications from her government’s purportedly pandemic-related decision to postpone this year’s election.
She said the NPCSC had ruled that incumbent legislators could stay in their seat until the new election date, but that the renominations of these four had been deemed invalid, in part because of their campaign promises to block government legislation should the pro-democracy camp win a majority.
Lam also listed other “unacceptable acts”, including advocacy or promotion of Hong Kong self-determination or independence, soliciting foreign intervention, refusing to recognise Beijing’s exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong, and expressing any in principle objection to the implementation of the national security law.
“Anyone engaging in any of these acts cannot possibly genuinely uphold the basic law, so they are unable to perform their duties as legislators,” said Lam.
Lam confirmed the breadth of the law, telling press: “For anyone who plans to run in future elections, this decision applies.”
The legislative council is dominated by pro-Beijing lawmakers and the mass resignation of opposition figures – who had flagged their intentions earlier in the day – marked the end of one of Hong Kong’s last forums for open democratic debate.
But in her her press conference Lam said there was “nothing to be ashamed of” in facing a LegCo without an opposition. “We are more excited when bills are passed more efficiently,” she said.
In response Wu said Lam “would pay a high price” for the efficiency she was looking for, because it called for the end of ‘one country, two systems’.
Speaking to reporters after the announcement, Leung said, according to public broadcaster RTHK: “This is a sad day, but it is also a glorious day for us all. Now, we are stepping down, however, there are more Hong Kong people with aspirations, with drive, with hope, with values, who can succeed us. And I’m sure they will continue to fight for the core values of Hong Kong.”
Kwok Ka-Ki said: “Today, ‘one country, two systems’ no longer exists. Anyone who made this decision has to answer to history and every one of the Hong Kong people.”
Dennis Kwok added: “If observing due process … fighting for democracy and human rights leads to the consequences of being disqualified then it would be my honour.”
The disqualifications come ahead of a delayed legislative election when pro-democracy lawmakers were expected to make major gains. After China imposed a sweeping and draconian national security law in July, the election originally scheduled for September was delayed. The city has since seen dozens of arrests and an unprecedented crackdown on free speech in a city known for its civil freedoms.
The latest legislation from Beijing adds to concern about Hong Kong’s autonomy as promised under the one country, two systems framework when Britain handed the former British colony to China in 1997. The US president-elect, Joe Biden, has promised to “fully enforce” legislation protecting democracy in Hong Kong, passed last year.
Calling the new resolution a “death sentence”, the Hong Kong Democracy Council said the legislative council would exist only as a “rubber stamping” body.
“With today’s vote and the immediate disqualification of four opposition lawmakers, the CCP [Chinese Communist party] is telling the world that, not only do they fully control the chief executive and her administration, but they are now extending that absolute control over the legislature,” the group based in Washington said.
“There will be zero tolerance for opposition voices in this version of Hong Kong – in other words, no more opposition party in Hong Kong’s legislative body from now on.”