The Beijing-controlled government of Hong Kong banned four pro-democracy legislators on Wednesday, branding them as threats to national security.
Another 19 opposition lawmakers quickly announced their resignations in solidarity, denouncing the government’s move as “ruthless” and a violation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.
The four lawmakers disqualified on Wednesday are Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, Kown Ka-ki, and Dennis Kwok of the Civic Party, plus Kenneth Leung of the Professionals Guild. All four of them, along with eight other opposition candidates, have already been banned from running in the next Hong Kong election, originally scheduled for September 6 but postponed for one year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The city government expelled them from the Legislative Council — Hong Kong’s legislature, commonly known as LegCo — using a new rule passed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) legislature in Beijing that empowers local officials to disqualify legislators if they “support Hong Kong’s independence or refuse to acknowledge China’s sovereignty over the city,” without winning a case against them in court.
This rule was in turn justified by invoking the draconian national security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong over the summer, as the law criminalizes anything that can be construed as jeopardizing Chinese national security, inviting foreigners to interfere in China’s affairs, or interfering with the smooth operation of Chinese government. Hong Kong democracy activists and international human rights advocates argued these standards would effectively criminalize all dissent. Beijing’s operatives in Hong Kong spent the past six months proving them right. One of the reasons cited for banning the four lawmakers was their opposition to the national security law.
Chinese state media reported the resolution that allowed the four pro-democracy legislators to be immediately ejected from LegCo was swiftly passed after Hong Kong’s unpopular chief executive, Carrie Lam, requested “guidance” from Beijing.
Kwok told reporters outside the LegCo building that his expulsion was “clearly in breach of the Basic Law and our rights to participate in public affairs, and a failure to observe due process.”
“It seems like those in power cannot tolerate opposition anymore. They’re adamant in getting rid of all opposition in the Legislative Council, and they are adamant in getting rid of all Democrats,” Kwok said.
The Basic Law is the “mini-constitution” agreed to by China when it took control of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom in 1997. Many of Basic Law’s provisions were meant to preserve Hong Kong’s unique autonomy, including free speech and political assembly rights that are denied to Chinese subjects.
“The road ahead will be bumpy, difficult and challenging … but I am in full faith of Hong Kong and all Hongkongers,” Yeung told supporters.
Pro-democracy leader Wu Chi-wai of the Hong Kong Democratic Party said the disqualifications were “ridiculous” and reflect Beijing’s “ruthless disrespect” for Basic Law.
Wu announced that he and 18 other opposition lawmakers would resign in protest, formally submitting their letters of resignation on Thursday.
“Today we will resign from our positions, because our partners, our colleagues, have been disqualified by the central government’s ruthless move. We are facing a lot of difficulties in the coming future for the fight of democracy, but we will never, never give up,” Wu said.
Sky News noted that Lam’s critics believe she postponed the legislative election and then sought the power to disqualify pro-democracy legislators because she feared the opposition would embarrass Beijing with a strong performance in free and fair elections.
“This is, in effect, the end of political opposition in Hong Kong. The British government has previously warned that Hong Kong’s freedoms were being eroded. By that measure, this was half the cliff-side falling into the sea,” Sky News correspondent Tom Cheshire warned.
Cheshire suggested Beijing used the double blow of the coronavirus pandemic and the iron-fisted national security law to break the back of the massive protest movement that erupted last year after a controversial extradition bill was proposed. The extradition bill was seen as damaging to Hong Kong’s autonomy; Beijing’s actions to crush the protest movement have effectively erased it.
“One Chinese Communist Party cadre described the National Security Law as a ‘sharp sword’ hanging over the city. Today showed that there are a thousand different ways to make a cut,” Cheshire wrote.
One of the ousted lawmakers, Kwok Ka-ki, made the same point when he was expelled after 16 years of serving in LegCo.
Kwok said that ever since the extradition law was proposed, Beijing and its loyalists have “used every means possible to attack Hong Kong,” including “the passing of the national security law, police and systemic violence in the legislature, oppressing democratically elected lawmakers, and sending myself and my colleagues to the courts on political charges.”
British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab shared those concerns in a statement on Wednesday.
“China’s decision to arbitrarily remove elected pro-democracy Hong Kong legislators from their positions represents a further assault on Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and freedoms under the UK-China Joint Declaration,” said Raab.
“This campaign to harass, stifle and disqualify democratic opposition tarnishes China’s international reputation and undermines Hong Kong’s long-term stability,” he warned.
Chinese state media was, of course, pleased with the decision to expel the pro-democracy legislators.
China’s state-run Global Times on Wednesday published a detailed list of the reasons each of the four was disqualified — from supporting the “five demands” of the anti-extradition law protesters on U.S. soil, to criticizing the national security law, promoting Western concepts of human rights, and criticizing the government in newspaper op-eds. Absolutely nothing cited by the Global Times would be considered justification for expelling a legislator without due legal process in a civilized country.
Almost everything listed in the lengthy article is something the four said or wrote, exercising the free speech rights China agreed to protect for 50 years when it took Hong Kong from Britain 23 years ago. The Global Times argued Kwok deserved expulsion from the Hong Kong legislature merely because he had the temerity to talk about running for a seat in the mainland legislature, the National People’s Congress.