Hong Kong’s opposition legislators, seen as representatives of the moderate pro-democracy voices in the Chinese-ruled territory, are expected to formally tender their resignations on Thursday in protest against the dismissal of four of their colleagues on grounds of “national security” as the United States warned of further sanctions.
Their departure will be a considerable blow to the political and civil freedoms that were guaranteed to Hong Kong when it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, following Beijing’s imposition of national security legislation on June 30 in the wake of mass pro-democracy protests.
“This is yet another example of the Chinese Communist Party trampling on what is left of democracy in Hong Kong,” Chris Patten, the city’s last British governor, said in a statement.
“Once again, [President] Xi Jinping’s regime has demonstrated its total hostility to democratic accountability, and those who wish to stand up for it.”
The move will mean the 70-member Legislative Council (LegCo) will be composed of almost entirely pro-Beijing politicians, allowing them to pass bills favoured by China without opposition. Beijing loyalists are already guaranteed a majority in the mini-parliament because only half the seats are directly elected.
The Chinese parliament passed a resolution on Wednesday, allowing Hong Kong authorities to expel legislators deemed a threat to national security or not holding allegiance to Hong Kong, without having to go through the courts.
Shortly afterwards, the local government announced the disqualification of four assembly members who had previously been barred from running for re-election because authorities decided their pledge of allegiance to Hong Kong was not sincere.
Rights group Amnesty International said the disqualifications were “yet another example” of Beijing’s attempt to silence dissent.
“Using a framework laid out in Beijing and executed by the Hong Kong government, these legislators have been banished from the city’s legislature for daring to espouse views that the ruling authorities don’t want to hear,” Yamini Mishra, Amnesty’s Asia Pacific regional director, said in a statement.
“This is a politically motivated attempt to legitimise repression of opposition legislators. Ultimately, it is a move that intensifies the chilling effect on the freedom of expression, association and participation in the political process in Hong Kong.”
Carrie Lam, the territory’s chief executive, insisted the disqualifications were not only “reasonable and necessary” but also legal.
“We have doubts about their abilities to perform their duties. If they are unable to uphold the Basic Law and to support Hong Kong, of course they are not qualified to be legislators,” she said, referring to the city’s mini-constitution.
Robert O’Brien, the US national security adviser, said the move showed the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had “flagrantly violated its international commitments”.
“One Country, Two Systems is now merely a fig leaf covering for the CCP’s expanding one party dictatorship in Hong Kong,” O’Brien said, adding that the US would continue to “identify and sanction those responsible for extinguishing Hong Kong’s freedom.”
Britain’s Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said the expulsions constituted an assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms.
Germany, the holder of the European Union’s rotating presidency and Australia have also condemned the move to disqualify the pro-democracy politicians.
Expanding political grip
The disqualifications underline how Beijing has managed to expand its political hold on the city as Hong Kong people have taken to the streets to demand China honour the pledges it made when it took back control of the territory from Britain in 1997.
The Hong Kong government earlier postponed September’s legislative elections by a year, citing the coronavirus pandemic. In district-level elections a year ago, after a period in which the mass protests that began in June had turned increasingly violent, pro-democracy candidates swept the board.
Earlier this month, police arrested eight other pro-democracy legislators over chaotic scuffles during a legislative meeting in May.
In 2017, a court disqualified four pro-democracy legislators, including Nathan Law, for modifying the oath of office during their swearing-in ceremony. On Twitter, Law, who sought political asylum in the UK as the national security legislation was imposed, described the new disqualifications as “another blatant example of the CCP’s political suppression. Disgusting.”
In 2016, two pro-independence legislators were ejected from the house after pledging allegiance to the “Hong Kong nation” and a judge later banned them from office. Shortly before that ruling, Beijing rewrote the Basic Law to require those wanting to hold public office to “sincerely and solemnly” declare allegiance to China.