The entirety of Hong Kong’s elected pro-democracy opposition announced its intention to resign Wednesday in protest over the expulsion of four lawmakers, after Beijing passed a resolution giving local authorities broad new powers to quash dissent.
The resolution, passed by China’s highest legislative body, allows Hong Kong’s executive to expel elected lawmakers directly without having to go through the courts, cementing Beijing’s control and likely signaling the end of organized political opposition in the semi-autonomous territory.
Under the new ruling, lawmakers who are deemed to promote or support Hong Kong independence, or who refuse to acknowledge Beijing’s sovereignty, will “immediately lose their qualifications,” the resolution said.
It also applies to elected lawmakers who “seek foreign forces to intervene in the affairs of Hong Kong, or who have endangered national security” and who “fail to uphold the Basic Law” – the city’s mini constitution – as well as those who are deemed “not loyal to the legal requirements and conditions” of the territory.
The four legislators, Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwok, Kwok Ka-ki and Kenneth Leung, were immediately disqualified from the city’s Legislative Council following the ruling, the Hong Kong government said. The four were previously barred from running in now postponed legislative elections earlier this year.
The ruling means that Beijing has effectively closed off one of the few remaining avenues open to Hong Kong residents to voice political dissent, following the imposition of a sweeping national security law in June criminalizing subversion.
In a show of solidarity on Monday, the city’s 15 remaining pro-democracy lawmakers announced they would step down en masse, saying that the “One Country Two Systems” framework that had meant to provide Hong Kong with greater autonomy from the mainland is now officially dead.
At a press conference announcing the mass resignation on Wednesday, Dennis Kwok, one of the four disqualified lawmakers, said that Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam had “sought to turn the Legislative Council into a one party system.”
“It is ridiculous that the government has completely given up the Basic Law and ‘One Country Two Systems’,” he said. “The Legislative Council has the responsibility to check the government.”
Kwok said that the pan democratic lawmakers “will stand together with our disqualified colleagues and we will today all resign together.”
The group were due to hand in their letters of resignation to the Legislative Council President inside the chamber on Thursday morning, but delayed their plans as the correct resignation protocol requires lawmakers to resign to the Secretariat instead. Members will be individually handing in their letters of resignation throughout Thursday.
The government clampdown comes in response to months of pro-democracy protests, which at their height last summer attracted more than 1 million people, and plunged the city into political crisis.
Some Hong Kong activists including former lawmakers and protest leaders have sought political asylum in other countries, fearing for their safety under the new measures.
Before lawmakers announced their resignation, pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo told CNN that the authorities “have practically put the nail into Hong Kong’s democracy fight. “
“From now on, anyone deemed to be politically incorrect will not be allowed to run in the election,” she said. “They are making sure only patriots can join Hong Kong’s political election.”
Lam, Hong Kong’s leader, said in a press conference Wednesday that those who do not respect China’s sovereignty “cannot genuinely perform their duties as legislators.”
“I welcome diverse opinion in the Legislative Council and respect the checks and balances,” Lam said, adding that, “all of those responsibilities must be exercised responsibly.”
The timing of the move will likely provide something of a reminder for United States President-elect Joe Biden in the challenge posed by China’s Communist Party.
Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong has become a major source of tension between the two sides. Under US President Donald Trump, Washington revoked the US’ special relationship with Hong Kong, declaring it would be treated the same as mainland China. The US has also imposed sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials, including Chief Executive Lam, for their role in undermining the city’s political autonomy.
On Tuesday, the State Department sanctioned four more Chinese officials connected to the national security law in Hong Kong.
Beijing’s latest move sparked a rebuke from US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, who said in a statement Wednesday that it leaves “no doubt that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has flagrantly violated its international commitments under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and its promises to the people of Hong Kong.”
“‘One Country, Two Systems’ is now merely a fig leaf covering for the CCP’s expanding one party dictatorship in Hong Kong,” he said, adding that the US will continue to “identify and sanction those responsible for extinguishing Hong Kong’s freedom.”
Rubber stamp parliament
Though a part of China, Hong Kong has its own legal and political system, with limited democracy and greater personal freedoms than on the mainland.
Opposition lawmakers – the democratic camp – held a minority in the 70-member Legislative Council and had often resorted to filibustering and other procedural tactics to slow down legislation they saw as diminishing those social freedoms.
RTHK previously reported that Beijing was seeking to unseat the now disqualified lawmakers for violating Hong Kong’s Basic Law by filibustering meetings. Emily Lau, former chair for the Democratic Party, said that she believed the Hong Kong government and the ruling Communist Party in Beijing had become frustrated with these tactics.
“It is absolutely devastating,” said Lau, a former Legislative Council member, of the new resolution. “We have procedures in the Basic Law if you want to kick out a legislator but they have just ignored all that … there’s no rule of law. It’s sending a very bad signal to Hong Kong and the world.”
Lau said that the broad definition of new ruling means it could be applied to “almost half of the population” and that the only people who could now run for government would be those who would “kowtow to Beijing.”
In July, 12 pro-democracy candidates, including the now-excluded four, were disqualified from standing in now-postponed legislative elections on the grounds that they would not uphold the city’s mini-constitution.
They included prominent Hong Kong activist and former leader of the 2014 Umbrella Movement Joshua Wong, and a number of candidates from more traditional pro-democracy parties, as well as several young activists who cut their political teeth in last year’s pro-democracy protest movement.
The legislative election, which had been scheduled for September 6, was postponed in July for 12 months due to coronavirus concerns. But some pro-democracy activists claimed the government was using the pandemic as an excuse to indefinitely postpone a crucial election for Hong Kong.
Just under half the seats in the Legislative Council are controlled by so-called functional constituencies, which represent business and society groups and are typically pro-government. The rest go to candidates in geographical constituencies, and before the election postponement, opposition parties had aimed to ride a wave of discontent with the government to fill those seats.
Critics now fear that with Beijing’s ruling and the expulsion of democracy lawmakers, Hong Kong’s parliament may just become a rubber stamp body for pro-Beijing policies.
With reporting from Eric Cheung, Kristie Lu Stout, and James Griffiths in Hong Kong.