HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s legislature on Thursday opened, unusually, on time.
The meetings had been starting late for months, consistently delayed by demands for roll calls from the pro-democracy opposition that had few other ways to stall the agenda of the Beijing-backed government. But those opposing lawmakers had all just resigned after the ouster of four colleagues.
Unfazed, the remaining pro-Beijing camp got to work, reviewing a bill on parking spaces and discussing flu vaccines. The opposition could only stand outside for one final protest, hanging two banners criticizing Hong Kong’s chief executive — and then taking them down just a few minutes later before security could do so.
The scene encapsulated the city’s new political landscape, with the opposition almost totally gutted. The pro-Beijing lawmakers were already preparing which policies to fast-track, free of any encumbrances, while the pro-democracy bloc was left grasping for a next move. The imbalance made it all but certain that the government could push through contentious proposals, such as voting rights for Hong Kong residents in mainland China.
The collapse of the legislative opposition was just the latest blow to Hong Kong’s beleaguered pro-democracy movement, after China imposed a new national security law this summer that helped silenced mass anti-government protests and set off widespread uncertainty about the fate of the city. In the months since, the Legislative Council had been one of the last bastions of formalized, legal dissent in the city.
Now, it is unclear what avenues of resistance remain, as Beijing exerts ever more control over the Chinese territory. People in both camps have been left wondering whether the resignations would be an effective form of protest, or amount to unilateral disarmament.
“I think it’s the wrong move for them, but it’s up to them,” said Leung Chun-Ying, one of the city’s former chief executives and a vocal supporter of Beijing. “I think they’ll be in the wilderness for a long time.”
The mass resignations, the first in the legislature’s history, were prompted by the central Chinese government’s move on Wednesday to give the Hong Kong authorities broad power to remove lawmakers deemed insufficiently loyal. Minutes later, Hong Kong officials disqualified four pro-democracy lawmakers accused of supporting foreign attempts to undermine the government.
The remaining 15 members of the “pan-democratic camp” — a coalition of representatives of different parties and independents who support greater democracy — then announced they would quit in solidarity.
In the immediate aftermath, even pro-establishment lawmakers seemed disoriented. Andrew Leung, the president of the Legislative Council, said the departing lawmakers still had items on the agenda that he had to determine how to handle.
But the establishment quickly announced that it would make full use of its new dominance to advance a slew of priorities that otherwise would have met fierce resistance.
Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, said she looked forward to expanding voting rights in city elections to Hong Kongers who live in mainland China. The proposal had been loudly criticized by opposition lawmakers as an attempt to bolster the numbers of pro-Beijing voters, particularly after the establishment suffered a major defeat in last year’s district council elections.
Mrs. Ip said she also wanted to introduce motions to clarify that Hong Kong had never had separation of powers. Pro-democracy groups had claimed the separation was an important element of “one country, two systems,” the political framework that gives Hong Kong civil liberties that do not exist in mainland China. But Mrs. Ip and other allies say the system has always been dominated by the executive branch.
And she was eager to promote changes to Liberal Studies, the high school curriculum that many establishment figures blame for turning young people against the government. The government has already appointed a task force to overhaul the course of study.
“We won’t be likely to run into the same obstructionist roadblocks as before,” Ms. Ip said. “I think we can return to a more normal state of affairs.”
While the pro-democracy lawmakers, as the minority, never had much power to block a government-backed proposal, they had deployed filibusters, calls for quorum and other legislative tactics to hamstring proceedings. It has always been nearly impossible for the pro-democracy camp to win a majority, as Hong Kong’s system is set up to favor the establishment.
Some politicians seemed almost gleeful at the new state of affairs. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said on Wednesday that the government felt “all the more excited” that its bills could be passed efficiently.
Mr. Leung, the former chief executive, said Hong Kong could finally see “what the proper functioning of a legislative council should look like.”
“We need patriots. All countries need patriots holding these key political positions,” he said. “I think it’s an important opportunity and an important window for the government to get things debated and approved, hopefully.”
The window could be brief. Hong Kong is slated to hold legislative elections next fall for all 70 seats. The elections were set to take place this September, but the government postponed them, citing the coronavirus pandemic — though critics said it was an attempt to forestall sweeping pro-democracy wins.
Even so, it is unclear whether any dissenting figures will stand for those seats. The government had already disqualified a dozen pro-democracy figures, including sitting lawmakers, from running.
As the 15 lawmakers handed in their resignations on Thursday, many expressed a sense of uncertainty about what they could do next.
Lam Cheuk Ting, who unfurled the banners mocking the chief executive, struck a defiant note at first. He said he would keep the banners, because he would have “plenty of use for them in the future” as he continued to criticize Mrs. Lam (Mr. Lam is not related to Mrs. Lam.)
But when asked about his plans after resigning, he said he needed time to discuss with colleagues, as well as his family.
He also has legal considerations. Mr. Lam will face trial after he was arrested in August on accusations that he instigated a mob attack during last year’s protests, even though a New York Times investigation showed that he had acted as a mediator, and was later among those beaten and injured by the attackers.
Eight other opposition lawmakers were arrested earlier this month over a heated meeting in May, when legislators physically clashed over control of a key committee. No establishment lawmakers were arrested.
“This year is stunning enough,” Mr. Lam said. “Let’s not talk about next year yet.”
Some departing lawmakers said they planned to return to their day jobs, finding ways to channel them into forms of protest. Dennis Kwok, one of the four ousted legislators, said he would continue working as a lawyer, taking on human rights cases. Wu Chi-wai, who resigned, said he would stay on as head of his political party.
But Mr. Wu acknowledged that their efforts outside of the legislature would most likely be more fragmented.
The pro-democracy camp had discussed keeping their seats, to be able to question government officials, draw on the resources of their offices and have access to official information, said Claudia Mo, another lawmaker who stepped down.
But she said the group ultimately decided that it was more important to show solidarity with their ousted colleagues, and to make clear that they saw the legislature increasingly as a rubber stamp for Beijing.
Even some lawmakers who supported the disqualification of the four lawmakers expressed concern about the mass resignations, indicating that the Legislative Council could lose legitimacy without an opposition faction. Felix Chung, the leader of the pro-Beijing Liberal Party, told reporters that the mass departures were “not healthy.”
“Everywhere in the world, the government always has opposition voices,” Mr. Chung said, as word spread on Wednesday of likely resignations. “If they all leave, I don’t know what will happen to Hong Kong.”
But Tommy Cheung, another Liberal Party member, disputed the idea that the pro-democracy members’ exits would leave the legislature with one voice. He noted that members of his party, which advocates business interests, had fought the government on raising the minimum wage and on granting statutory paternity leave.
“We were basically the opposition when it comes to nutrition labeling,” he said.