Banned Pro-Independence Hong Kong Legislators Aren’t Giving Up

Newly elected Hong Kong lawmakers Yau Wai-ching, left, and Sixtus Leung react during a press conference outside the high court in Hong Kong Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. Two newly elected Hong Kong separatist lawmakers who used anti-China insults when being sworn in were disqualified from taking office in a court …
AP Photo/Vincent Yu

When last we checked in on Hong Kong lawmakers Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus “Baggio” Leung, they had been banned from holding office by Beijing, which invoked a seldom-used clause of the “one country, two systems” legal code. One country with 1.5 systems seems closer to the truth.

There was unrest in the streets, as critics charged Beijing’s move against Yau and Leung could be a prelude to rendering most of Hong Kong’s constitution moot. One of the protests involved two thousand lawyers dressed in black, marching behind a conductor who brandished a black umbrella — a symbol of previous mass demonstrations.

A Hong Kong court has now ruled in support of Beijing’s decision, but Yau and Leung have vowed to fight their disqualification from office. They said banning them from office would disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters and render elections all but “meaningless” — a point pro-Beijing activists seem eager to drive home by invoking the Yau/Leung precedent to get even more legislators banned.

13 assistants of the two lawmakers were also banned from the Legislative Council complex for their role in a brawl that injured six security guards. The fight broke out when Yau and Leung tried to force their way into a Council meeting.

CNN quotes Leung saying he would fight to “protect our system and the separation of powers and the rule of law.”

“By preventing the two pro-independence politicians from taking office, the Chinese government has opened the door to disqualify anyone from Hong Kong’s government if they are determined to not be loyal to Beijing,” another lawmaker, Claudia Mo, chimed in.

Mo has written that the banning of Yau and Leung was “the beginning of the end of Hong Kong,” as China sets the “very, very dangerous precedent” of “ruling Hong Kong by decree.” She predicted this would “affect the confidence of foreign investors,” throw the legal system into chaos, and drain vital human capital by prompting disillusioned young people to flee.

CNN notes that Yau and Leung have their detractors as well, including among the pro-democracy movement.

“The most prevalent sentiment is that Yau and Leung have overplayed their hands — and rather unnecessarily so. By doing what they did, they have not only damaged their own politics careers, but they have also jeopardized those of other anti-establishment lawmakers,” said lawyer Jason Ng, who wrote a book about the Umbrella Revolution.

Last Thursday, Yau and Leung attempted to secure a “stay of execution” — a rather ominous turn of phrase, but essentially they were asking for their seats to be formally considered occupied until they complete their appeal of the ban. They were concerned new elections would be held to replace them before they received a final ruling. Their request for a stay of execution was denied, as the judges explained their appeal would be heard on November 24, and there is little danger their seats will be declared “vacant” before then.

The banned legislators can be forgiven for worrying about things moving fast in the Legislative Council, as the Economist reported the nameplates were removed from their offices and the possibility of recouping some $232,000 in salaries and staff expenses was floated within hours of the Hong Court court’s ruling against them.

Voice of America News notes that Yau and Leung’s plight has drawn only a “relatively mild expression of disappointment from Washington.”

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the Obama administration was “disappointed by recent developments related to” the Legislative Council and wished Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to “refrain from actions that… undermine confidence in the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle.”

VOA notes that another State Department spokesperson, Elizabeth Trudeau, did not bother “expressing disappointment or urging anyone to refrain from particular actions.”

Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, told VOA it was understandable that the Obama administration would tread lightly in the Yau/Leung imbroglio, especially since Beijing and its ardent supporters in Hong Kong would like nothing better than to portray the upstart duo as “tools of America.”

He also offered the same criticism that many nominal political allies of Yau and Leung in Hong Kong have leveled: they did not do themselves any favors by going over the top with their gesture of defiance, which included some rude and insulting language.

Not only did this limit the amount of sympathy they could expect from polite Hong Kong society, it made the possibility of calling a mulligan on their swearing-in ceremony and giving them another chance to take their oaths of office, a compromise often mentioned as the ideal solution to the crisis, politically difficult. They have not expressed any remorse for their actions, so those inclined to give them another chance might reasonably wonder if they would behave the same way, possibly provoking even more drama in the streets.

“If Yau and Leung lose their appeal, Hong Kong will have to hold by-elections to fill their vacant Legco seats. Any such elections likely would be held early next year, by which time Hong Kong’s small but increasingly strident independence movement will be an issue for the next U.S. administration of Donald Trump to deal with,” Voice of America predicts.