On Wednesday, all 19 pro-democracy members of Hong Kong’s legislature appeared before media to announce their resignation. The opposition members are leaving the Legislative Council in protest after Beijing on Wednesday authorized the Hong Kong government to disqualify and remove four pro-democracy legislators who were already barred from reelection.
Earlier in the day, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, China’s top legislative body, passed a resolution barring from Hong Kong’s legislature anyone who supports independence, refuses to recognize Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong, appeals to foreign forces to intervene in the region’s affairs, or endangers national security.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Wu Chi Wai called the Chinese government’s latest blow to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement “ruthless” and “extremely ridiculous.”
“The worst of all,” he said at Wednesday’s press conference, “the decision made by the central government seems to say that all the separation of powers will be taken away and all the power will be centralized in [Hong Kong’s] chief executive,” which contradicts the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.
The mass resignations come as Beijing intensifies a crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests by imposing the sweeping national security law on June 30. The law that criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign collusion would also quash political dissent in the former British colony.
“It seems like those in power cannot tolerate opposition anymore,” said Dennis Kwok, one of the four disqualified legislators, at a press conference on Monday in anticipation of Beijing’s actions. “They are adamant in getting rid of all democrats, not simply from [the legislature], it seems from the whole of Hong Kong, even.”
Without the 19 pro-democracy members in the 70-seat legislature, only two independent lawmakers remain. Others are pro-Beijing. Half of the council’s seats are reserved for typically pro-Beijing special interests, while the other half are filled by direct elections.
The current council is an interim legislature, as Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam postponed the September legislative election by one year, claiming coronavirus concerns. Beijing allowed lawmakers from the previous term to stay on, although pro-democracy members Eddie Chu and Ray Chan had boycotted the “appointed legislature.”
Other opposition members had remained in the council to do all they could by rules of procedure to keep the regime in check.
The Legislative Council upheaval on Wednesday follows the arrests of seven current and former pro-democracy legislators and one legislative aide earlier this month. Police arrested them for violating a council ordinance during a May fracas inside the legislative chambers.
The May 8 Legislative Council meeting had descended into chaos after pro-Beijing legislator Starry Lee took the chairman’s seat: Opposition members shouted at her and held up placards protesting her authority to preside over a meeting that would pass controversial bills. Pro-establishment members countered with placards of their own, accusing the pro-democracy members of violating their oaths.
As security guards surrounded Lee, rival lawmakers scuffled. Eddie Chu climbed a wall trying to bypass a human barricade. Pro-Beijing lawmaker Kwok Wai Keung dragged Ray Chan by the collar to the floor. Lee ordered the removal of opposition members, and security guards carried Chu and Chan out by their limbs.
Opposition members decried the arrests as arbitrary, since no pro-Beijing legislators were similarly arrested. Authorities have charged the pro-democracy lawmakers with offenses of contempt and interference that carry fines of $1,285 and 12 months in prison. Their court hearing will take place Feb. 11.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the arrests as a political abuse of law enforcement: “The Hong Kong government’s harassment and intimidation of pro-democracy representatives and attempts to stifle dissent are stark examples of its ongoing complicity with the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party.” On Monday, the U.S. State Department sanctioned four top Chinese and Hong Kong officials involved in enforcing the national security law.
At Wednesday’s press conference, Wu said, “We know that to fight for democracy from totalitarianism has always been a very long road, but we will never let this kind of persecution and pressure defeat us.”