HONG KONG — China moved on Wednesday to quash one of the last vestiges of democracy and dissent in Hong Kong, forcing the ouster of four pro-democracy lawmakers from their elected offices in a purge that prompted the rest of the opposition to vow to resign en masse.
The departures will reshape the city’s political landscape, which has been upended since China imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong this summer that gave the authorities broad powers to crack down on resistance. They mark the intensification of a campaign that has damaged Hong Kong’s global reputation as a bastion for freedom of speech and rule of law.
The targeting of the democratically elected lawmakers comes at a time when the United States — which has recently protested China’s treatment of Hong Kong and imposed sanctions — is distracted by its own struggles over the American presidential election.
In Hong Kong in recent months, the Beijing-backed authorities have arrested pro-democracy leaders and activists as they resolved to bring Hong Kong to heel and put an end to the protests that engulfed the semiautonomous Chinese territory for much of last year. Beijing and its supporters have also raised pressure on Hong Kong’s independent court system and on news outlets that strike a defiant tone.
Their target on Wednesday was Hong Kong’s legislature, the Legislative Council, which has stood as a symbol of the “one country, two systems” legal framework designed to preserve democratic freedoms in the former British colony after it returned to Chinese rule.
The legislature has proved an irritant for Beijing, as a group of pro-democracy lawmakers have loudly argued that China’s campaign threatens to erode Hong Kong’s status as a global, open city.
Beijing officials moved on Wednesday to silence those voices, granting broad new powers that allow the Hong Kong government to remove lawmakers from office who do not show clear loyalty to China.
Within minutes of Beijing’s announcement, Hong Kong officials ejected the four lawmakers, Dennis Kwok, Kwok Ka-ki, Kenneth Leung and Alvin Yeung. Hours after their removal from office, the remaining 15 members of their bloc said they were stepping down in solidarity.
“Together we stand!” lawmakers in the pro-democracy camp chanted as they held hands in a conference room in the Legislative Council building. One of the legislators, Wu Chi-wai, told reporters that they would tender their resignations in protest on Thursday.
“Under authoritarianism, the road to democracy will be extremely long and arduous, but we will absolutely not be defeated by its pressures,” Mr. Wu said. “We will inevitably find new paths.”
The lawmakers said that they believed the legislature is now so compromised by the government’s power to stamp out opposition that they must work outside the system.
“Many people will consider today a dark day. It is hard for me to say it isn’t,” said Kwok Ka-ki, one of the four lawmakers who was removed. “As long as our resolve to fight for freedom, equality and justice remains unchanged, one day we will see the return of the core values we cherish.”
The Hong Kong government appeared to welcome the resignations, which will give it much freer rein to pursue its agenda. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, dismissed suggestions that the absence of the opposition lawmakers would tarnish the legislature if it pushed through policies favored by Beijing’s supporters.
“Of course we want the Legislative Council to pass the bills that we propose. We feel all the more excited when they can be passed in an efficient manner,” she said. “As the executive branch, we work in the hopes that the council will support and pass our bills.”
U.S. officials condemned the disqualification of the lawmakers, with the national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, saying China “has flagrantly violated its international commitments under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and its promises to the people of Hong Kong.” He added that the “one country, two systems” framework “is now merely a fig leaf covering for the C.C.P.’s expanding one party dictatorship in Hong Kong,” referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
Democracy in Hong Kong has always come with caveats. Its top leader, the chief executive, is appointed in a process controlled by Beijing. Half of the Legislative Council’s 70 members are selected by groups called functional constituencies that represent various industries and other establishment groups.
But the legislature, nicknamed LegCo, had been one of the most visible signs that Hong Kong remained distinct from mainland China, where the Communist Party dominates government and dissent is swiftly silenced. Many of the seats are elected directly by the public, helping to give the pro-democracy camp a sizable minority and a forum to express its views to the establishment. Hong Kong’s local constitution, which came into effect upon the 1997 handover, even promised eventual direct elections for the entire legislature as well as the chief executive.
Instead, the room for opposition voices in the legislature is shrinking rapidly.
Last summer, weeks after the national security law was enacted, the Hong Kong government postponed an election set for September by a year, citing the coronavirus pandemic. The move was criticized by pro-democracy lawmakers as a naked effort to avoid defeat at the polls.
Before the postponement, the government had also forbidden the four lawmakers who were ousted on Wednesday from running for re-election. They were accused of planning legislative moves aimed at undermining the local government and of supporting, or even failing to condemn, U.S. sanctions on officials deemed responsible for rights abuses.
On Wednesday, Chinese officials outlined the new measure designed to keep the Legislative Council in line. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislative body, said that lawmakers who support Hong Kong independence, refuse to recognize the country’s sovereignty over the city, seek out foreign or external forces to interfere with domestic affairs, or engage in acts that endanger national security will face immediate disqualification.
Lawmakers who fail to meet the statutory requirements for upholding the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s local constitution, and swearing “allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China” will also be ousted, it added.
The Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong, Beijing’s top emissary in the city, said the rules would ensure that politicians “fulfill their constitutional responsibility of loyalty to the country.”
The move is not completely unprecedented. In 2016 and 2017, Hong Kong removed six pro-democracy lawmakers who had conducted forms of protest while taking their oaths of office. But those moves had required both local court rulings and a legal review by the government in Beijing. The new rules give the Hong Kong government far greater leeway in removing opposition lawmakers.
As other venues for dissent have been closed off, the pro-democracy lawmakers have become increasingly active. Establishment lawmakers had complained about filibustering tactics used by the opposition camp, even calling for prosecutions under the national security law.
Lau Siu-kai, a former Hong Kong government official who is now a senior adviser to Beijing, said the central government had grown frustrated with the pro-democracy camp’s tactics in the legislature, which it saw as stalling important work on issues such as a weak economy and the pandemic.
“I think Beijing does not want to wait to see whether the opposition will really change its stance because circumstances are so grave that Beijing wants to act as soon as possible,” he said.
Earlier this month, the police arrested eight pro-democracy lawmakers over a heated meeting in May, when there were disputes over control of a key committee. No establishment lawmakers were arrested; the government blocked a private prosecution against one of them who dragged an opposition lawmaker to the ground.
One of the ousted lawmakers, Dennis Kwok, controlled that committee and had drawn widespread criticism from Hong Kong and Beijing officials over delaying tactics, including slowing the consideration of certain bills. Despite the disqualification, he said he had no regrets over his actions.
“There’s no point in doing this job if you can’t do it properly,” he said.