Hong Kong’s opposition bloc resigned en masse on Wednesday after China moved to disqualify lawmakers who aren’t deemed sufficiently loyal, one of Beijing’s strongest actions yet to quash dissent in the territory.
Fifteen members of the pro-democracy camp in the 70-seat Legislative Council quit following the disqualification of four members under Beijing’s new rules. The announcement was made at a joint briefing, at which the lawmakers held hands and chanted protest slogans including “Hong Kong add oil — together we stand.”
“This move makes it clear that dictatorship has descended on to Hong Kong and that Chinese Communist Party can eradicate all opposing voices in the legislature,” Fernando Cheung, one of the lawmakers, said earlier by phone. “There’s no more separation of powers, no more ‘one country, two systems,’ and therefore no more Hong Kong as we know it.”
China’s top legislative body earlier passed a measure requiring Hong Kong lawmakers to demonstrate loyalty to the central government, curbing debate in a democratic institution that has endured more than two decades after the former British colony’s return. The decision of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee is “conducive to the long-term peace and stability, as well as prosperity and development of Hong Kong,” Chairman Li Zhanshu said at the close of its two-day meeting.
Offenses included supporting Hong Kong independence, refusing to recognize China’s sovereignty over the city, asking foreign countries to intervene, failing to uphold the territory’s Basic Law or pledge allegiance to Hong Kong and “engaging in any other acts that endanger national security,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam said.
“We need to have a political body that’s composed of patriots,” Lam said at a briefing on Wednesday, echoing similar statements from China’s top agencies overseeing Hong Kong. She dismissed concerns that Hong Kong would have a “rubber-stamp” legislature if the pro-democracy members resigned, saying she welcomes “diverse opinion.”
The resolution is the latest sign of China’s determination to rein in dissent in the wake of anti-government protests that rocked Hong Kong last year. Beijing bypassed the Legislative Council to impose controversial national security legislation in June, causing the Group of Seven nations to accuse China of violating the terms of its handover agreement with the U.K. and prompting the Trump administration to sanction more than a dozen senior officials who oversee the city.
The mass resignation highlights international concerns about China’s human rights practices just as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office on a promise to defend democratic values around the world. He has vowed to “fully enforce” legislation signed by President Donald Trump that punishes Beijing for eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Wednesday called the matter “purely China’s internal affairs,” and warned foreign governments to avoid “interference or wanton comments.”
The ability to purge opposition lawmakers would make it easier for Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed politicians to control the Legislative Council if they win an unprecedented majority in elections that the government has postponed — citing coronavirus concerns — over the protests of democracy advocates.
The move by Beijing will demolish any opposition in the legislature and allow the Hong Kong government to ram through even more restrictive measures in the coming years, said Ivan Choy, a senior lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“The situation is quite clear in Hong Kong that Beijing is trying to eradicate any political opposition, whether it’s the moderate or the radical wing,” Choy said. “In the next two years, I think they’ll do even more nasty things to strengthen their draconian rule.”
The lawmakers disqualified Wednesday — Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwok, Kwok Ka-ki and Kenneth Leung — were among the body’s more moderate members, and not known proponents of independence. They were among 12 candidates barred in July from seeking election for, among other things, vowing to “indiscriminately” vote down legislative proposals, a reference to the opposition’s plan to exercise a constitutional provision that would force Lam to resign if her budget failed to pass.
Pressed on whether she was seeking to ban parliamentary delay tactics common to legislatures around the world, Lam said “it’s all a matter of degree” and pledged to “respect the check-and-balance responsibility” of the body.
“They want to turn the Legislative Council into the National People’s Congress,” pro-democracy lawmaker James To said at the briefing on Wednesday.
The move will raise new questions about the future of the legislature, perhaps the most high-profile platform for open debate left under Beijing’s rule. After several “localist” activists were among a record 29 opposition lawmakers elected in 2016, China handed down a ruling that led to the disqualification of a half dozen lawmakers.
Several remaining lawmakers are also facing criminal charges related to various protests against the government, including seven charged in recent months with participating in a May scuffle at the Legislative Council.
“It means, effectively, the end of meaningful opposition in Hong Kong and the acceleration of the integration of Hong Kong into the mainland party state,” said Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based lawyer and author of “City on Fire: The Fight for Hong Kong.” “Going forward, Legco will only be comprised of Beijing-friendly people and the scope for opposition figures, even if they get into Legco, to do anything meaningful will be constrained to the extent that the Legco becomes like the NPC: a rubber-stamp parliament.”
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