The Hong Kong Bar Association issued a statement on Wednesday criticizing a court ruling that effectively bans political candidates who favor greater independence from China. One prominent young pro-democracy activist immediately announced that she would file her election papers anyway.
On Tuesday, a judge dismissed a complaint by Andy Chan, founder of the Hong Kong National Party, objecting to the practice of disqualifying candidates who are judged insufficiently enthusiastic for upholding “Basic Law.”
In other words, candidates who do not wholeheartedly accept the model of Hong Kong as an inseparable part of China with limited (and dwindling) autonomy will not be allowed to run for office on the island. Not only were Chan and five other independence-minded candidates blocked from 2016 legislative elections, but six sitting legislators were eventually unseated after their devotion to Basic Law was deemed inadequate. When opposition activists threw their hats in the ring for those suddenly vacant seats, three of them were promptly disqualified.
“This regrettably is equivalent to the introduction of a political screening process for any prospective candidate, and there is no fair, open, certain and clear procedure to regulate this process,” said the Hong Kong Bar Association.
“It is particularly worrying that the requirement of ‘upholding the Basic Law’ is a vague and imprecise political concept, which has now to be interpreted and administered by a civil servant under a closed-door inquiry,” the statement added.
The new head of the HKBA, Philip Dykes, is a human-rights activist whose upset victory in the association’s January elections was taken as a sign that the group was gearing up for a long debate with Beijing over autonomy issues. Dykes himself hoped that relations with mainland China would remain cordial and professional, but pro-Beijing observers suspected the Hong Kong Bar Association would annoy Beijing by taking the side of democracy activists in court.
Some feared the legal profession would become even more politicized, while others argued apolitical legal representation is difficult when the law itself is used as a political instrument.
It would be difficult to argue that the leadership election was not politically charged. Dykes surprisingly unseated incumbent chairman Paul Lam Ting-kwok based largely on criticism that Lam was too slow to push back against Beijing’s plans for a controversial customs checkpoint on a new China-Hong Kong rail line.
Both sides will find much to contemplate in the ruling against Chan and the HKBA’s response to it. The Hong Kong Bar Association argues that China and its proxies in Hong Kong have effectively established a “closed-door inquiry” system that can shoot down any candidate Beijing doesn’t like, with very little opportunity for the accused to confront or rebut the charges.
One of the most troubling cases concerns Agnes Chow, a 21-year-old rising star in opposition politics who describes herself as an “average schoolgirl” willing to stand up for democracy and self-determination against the authoritarians of Beijing. Evidently believing that the best way to scuttle a David-vs.-Goliath story is to stomp on David before he ever picks up a sling, pro-China forces moved to terminate Chow’s career in politics before she could win a seat. Chow says she was never even interviewed by the “returning officer” who barred her from the 2018 elections.
“The ban against me isn’t personal, it’s targeting an entire generation of young people who have a different view from the government. The government only wants young people who will show their affection for China and the Communist party. Any deviation of thought is now unacceptable,” Chow told the UK Guardian in an interview after she was banned.
It is easy to see why Beijing does not want Chow winning any elections. She is not an angry bomb-thrower, but rather polite, determined, and unwilling to let anyone slide on their nominal commitment to democracy. That includes British Prime Minister Theresa May, criticized by the young activist for not doing enough to plead her case while meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Chow renounced her British citizenship and put her education on hold in order to qualify as a candidate.
On Tuesday, after the ruling criticized by the Hong Kong Bar Association was handed down, Chow announced that she would file her election petition anyway.
“I believe that the right to run in an election is ensured in the Basic Law, regardless of any political stance, so candidates who advocate Hong Kong independence, or self-determination, or candidates who are from the pro-Beijing camp, should all have the basic right to run in an election,” she said.