The Beijing-decreed unseating of four Hong Kong opposition lawmakers earlier this week marked a big step in China’s drive to tame the territory’s pan-democratic camp and turn a legislature usually hijacked by partisan filibustering into a more pliant one, say observers.
A resolution passed on Wednesday by the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee in Beijing disqualified four prominent opposition activists serving as legislators: the Civil Party’s Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwok and Kwok Ka-ki as well as the Professional Commons’ Kenneth Leung.
Allegations leveled at them to justify their sacking include advocacy of Hong Kong independence, refusal to recognize Beijing’s sovereignty over the city, soliciting foreign meddling as well as other activities endangering national security.
When handing down the decision, the NPC questioned the four legislators’ allegiance to Hong Kong – now a Chinese special administrative region following its 1997 handover from Britain – and their upholding of the city’s constitutional document, the Basic Law, which stipulates in Article 1 that Hong Kong is “an inalienable part of China.”
Evicting the four from the Legislative Council (LegCo) has, however, triggered a fresh commotion in the city, which is still reeling from Beijing’s unsolicited imposition in July of a sweeping national security law to criminalize secession, subversion, theft of state secrets and colluding with foreign influences.
Back then, Beijing remained intransigent despite the hefty blowback and subsequent sanctions from the West – in particular, from Washington and London – against what they called a “draconian” law and Beijing reneging on its pledges of freedom and autonomy for the city. This time Beijing has again brushed aside all accusations, with rhetorical questions from the nationalistic Global Times about what the United States would do if their congressmen were splitting the country or calling for China or Russia to interfere with American politics.
Following the disqualifications, as many as 19 opposition legislators also resigned en masse in protest, leaving the already uneven power dynamic at the 70-remember LegCo even more lopsided: among the remaining 43 members in the chamber, only two are seen as centrists and are not avowedly pro-Beijing.
Beijing has, in response, scrambled to stress through its loyalists that its intention was not to drive the entire opposition out of the chamber.
Lau Siu-kai, a policy wonk and a deputy chair of the semiofficial Hong Kong and Macau Studies Association, told reporters that Beijing had only sought to depose “a minority of radicals who blatantly supported separatism and foreign intervention” – Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwok and Kwok Ka-ki flew to the US last year to lobby for sanctions – but other opposition lawmakers should have stayed.
“Beijing has always viewed each case separately and sought to rally [most members of the opposition] behind its vision for Hong Kong, and there is still room for the camp to scrutinize government bills and raise objections,” said Lau, who added that the four were stripped of their posts due to their independence advocacy and ties with foreign forces, not the camp’s filibustering tactics.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who requested the NPC intervention regarding the four lawmakers, also dismissed talks that likened the now tottering Hong Kong legislature to the NPC itself, since the Chinese parliament is known for rubber-stamping most, if not all, bills.
Yet the obvious result is that the Hong Kong government can now expect less obstruction when trying to ram controversial or unpopular legislation and funding proposals through the chamber.
Meanwhile, Beijing is also perceived as going back on its word. When announcing the postponement of the next LegCo election, which was originally slated for September but postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the NPC noted that all serving lawmakers could have their tenure extended by one year. Thus the latest disqualifications have exposed Beijing to more criticism.
Now, the new worry among all opposition members is that if they can still run in next year’s election, the government, with the NPC resolution, can cast anyone out of office at will, including district councillors who are mostly members of the camp after the opposition’s emphatic victory in 2019’s district polls.
Eric Mar, a professor at Peking University’s School of Governance, told Asia Times that turfing out popularly-elected lawmakers would greatly undermine the mandate of the Hong Kong legislature, because more than half of the city’s electorate still formed the base of the pan-democratic bloc. But he added that the NPC resolution apparently only targeted the four and sought to distinguish these radicals from more centrist opposition lawmakers and it may even want to create divisions among them.
“Beijing is perhaps disappointed when almost the entire opposition chose to leave en bloc in protest, as Beijing’s approach is always to come down hard on radicals while drawing others over to its side… That plan fell through and so even Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong has attacked other resigning opposition lawmakers for ‘betraying their voters,’” said the scholar.
An opinion piece by Singapore’s Lianhe Zaobao also pointed out that concerns about the opposition, now out in the cold, mounting more resistance and even unrest could be overblown, now that the national security law had largely restored stability and deterred most troublemakers.
“The room for radicals is getting narrower, Beijing won’t vacillate under the weight of the backlash from the West and Hong Kong’s LegCo will continue to operate, albeit with an attenuated role… With a more cooperative LegCo, the ball is in the Hong Kong government’s court to introduce policies to rekindle economic development and people’s hope,” said the paper.