A Hong Kong court ruled last week that four pro-democracy lawmakers in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) were disqualified from serving in the Legislative Council by failing to take their oath of office seriously. The decision is a blow to both judicial and political autonomy in Hong Kong — a violation of the “one country, two systems” model that Beijing agreed to support for the city when it reverted to Chinese control in 1997 — and shifts the balance of power in the legislature in China’s favor. It is, as one pro-democracy group insisted, “a declaration of war.”
During swearing-in ceremonies last year, six legislators deviated from the oath of office to protest China’s increasingly heavy hand in city affairs. Two of them, independence advocates, were disqualified immediately for mispronouncing words that were deemed insulting to China. Four others made gestures or added words; one added an upward inflection to the word “Republic” in “People’s Republic of China,” implying that he was questioning the idea.
As the first two awaited an opportunity to retake the oath, Hong Kong officials sued to prevent them from doing so. Before the court ruled, however, China’s central government used its power to reinterpret the Hong Kong Basic Law to declare that there would be no second chance. That prompted Hong Kong officials to argue for the same logic and ruling for the other four, a position that the Hong Kong court adopted last week.
The ruling has two important effects. First, it continues the erosion of Hong Kong’s political autonomy. Local institutions have been effectively subordinated to Beijing’s determinations, regardless of promises in the Basic Law or the 1997 Reversion Agreement. And there is no shortage of people in the SAR who will use Beijing’s authority to bolster their own power and influence.
Second, it shifts the balance of power in the legislature. Pro-democracy activists had sufficient numbers in the Legislative Council to block motions and amendments and filibuster some legislation. No longer. Worse, Beijing loyalists can now change legislature rules to roll back what limited power democrats had. Hong Kong democracy, RIP.