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The mass resignation of pandemocratic legislators protesting against the disqualification of four of their number takes Hong Kong back 23 years, to the handover of the British colony to China and an appointed legislature boycotted by the democrats in 1997-1998.

In the more than two decades since then, the pro-democracy forces have been a thorn in the side of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administration and of the Chinese government as they kept winning a majority of the votes while reaping only a minority of the seats. Still, their numbers grew and, in 2016, they won 30 of the 70 seats.

This year, following the large-scale 2019 government protests, there was hope that, finally, they may win a majority in September. The democrats talked of blocking all government initiatives, including the budget, and forcing Chief Executive Carrie Lam to resign.

On July 31, the Hong Kong government, citing the pandemic, postponed the election by a year.

The previous day, the nominations of 12 opposition candidates were invalidated by government officials, known as returning officers. The 12 included four incumbent Legislative Councilors — Alvin Yeung, Kwok Ka-ki, Dennis Kwok and Kenneth Leung.

The 12 disqualifications were based on various reasons, including promoting Hong Kong independence, soliciting intervention by foreign governments in Hong Kong’s affairs and the expression of an intention to vote down all government proposals.

When announcing the delay of the elections, Lam said that her government would formally seek approval from Beijing.

This came Aug. 11, when China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee decided to extend the term of the current Hong Kong Legislative Council for no less than one year. However, the decision did not mention the four legislators who were barred from running again.

This took many by surprise. Beijing, it appeared, was satisfied to allow all members of the legislature to continue for another year.

This clearly was the chief executive’s understanding. In a news conference the following week, Lam said: “As far as I am concerned, since the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress has made this decision so that all [members] of the current legislative council can continue to perform their duties, then they will return to the legislative council to perform their duties.”

The situation was awkward for Lam’s administration, which had asserted that these four were unfit for office.

Actually, ambiguity is vital for Hong Kong’s existence as a semiautonomous region of China. From the beginning, many things were purposely left undefined, such as whether the entire Chinese constitution was binding on Hong Kong, and what “a high degree of autonomy” actually means. The trick was not to force the issue.

Lam, while seemingly accepting the ambiguous position of having four disqualified legislators in office until next September, secretly asked Beijing to resolve her dilemma.

On Nov. 11, in response to her request, the NPCSC passed a resolution saying that legislators who promote Hong Kong independence, who ask external forces to interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs or who commit other acts that threaten national security should be disqualified.

The Hong Kong administration immediately ejected the four disqualified pro-democracy lawmakers from the legislature. The remaining 15 pro-democracy legislators announced — as previously agreed — that they would resign in protest.

The chief executive doesn’t seem to realize the extent to which she has damaged Hong Kong and weakened its autonomy.

She has created a path for the executive to remove legislators at will, without involvement of the legislature itself or the judiciary. As the Hong Kong Bar Association pointed out, the government’s approach “violates the basic principles of fairness and due process inherent in the rule of law.”

When all the resignations take effect next month, there will be no legislator elected from any pro-democratic party.

This resembles the situation in 1997, when Hong Kong began its new life as part of China. But things are very different now and, in many ways, much worse.

Although a million people left Hong Kong before 1997, many returned with foreign passports to continue their life in the city. Now, there is a new exodus but, this time, few will return.

Then, there was a sense of excitement, of being part of a new China that was opening up to the world. Now, there is fear of a China that has become a superpower and is telling everyone else to behave, or else.

Then, Beijing needed Hong Kong and showed it. Now, while Hong Kong is still important as China’s international financial center, it has lost its old cachet. China now ranks Hong Kong’s importance behind Shenzhen. To top it off, there is little trust on either side.

Frank Ching is a U.S. journalist based in Hong Kong who frequently writes on China-related issues.

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