HK Chief Executive Fires Four Legislators, Prompting Resignation of Entire Opposition

The government disqualified four pro-democracy lawmakers on Wednesday, in a unilateral move that triggered the mass resignation of the entire pro-democracy camp in the Legislative Council, locally known as . The disqualification followed the release of a resolution by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee which empowers the Chief Executive to bypass the courts and immediately unseat lawmakers for “promoting independence” or “foreign interference.”

Minutes after the resolution was released, the Hong Kong government announced the disqualification of four members of the Legislative Council—Alvin Yeung, Kwok Ka-ki, Dennis Kwok, and Kenneth Leung—effectively firing elected lawmakers. Media sources had earlier in the week foreshadowed the NPCSC decision, leading the pro-democracy camp to threaten to collectively resign in protest. Its 19 members announced on Wednesday afternoon their intention to resign the following morning. A watershed moment, the pan-democrat camp’s departure from LegCo means that November 12th, 2020 will mark the effective end of institutional opposition to the Hong Kong government.

For the New York Times, Austin Ramzy, Tiffany May, and Elaine Yu report on the provisions of the NPCSC resolution:

On Wednesday, Chinese officials described a new measure designed to keep the Legislative Council in line. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislative body, said that lawmakers who support Hong Kong independence, refuse to recognize the country’s sovereignty over the city, seek out foreign or external forces to interfere with domestic affairs, or engage in acts that endanger national security will face immediate disqualification.

Lawmakers who fail to meet the statutory requirements for upholding the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s local constitution, and swearing “allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China” will also be ousted, it added.

The Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong, Beijing’s top emissary in the city, said the rules would ensure that politicians “fulfill their constitutional responsibility of loyalty to the country.” [Source]

The NPCSC resolution was announced by state-run news agency Xinhua on Wednesday morning. Xinhua reported that the decision was prompted by a specific request by Chief Executive . The Hong Kong government issued a press release announcing the disqualification minutes later.

At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, the ejected lawmakers thanked their supporters and their families. “If observing due process and protecting systems and functions and fighting for democracy and human rights will lead to the consequences of being disqualified, it will be my honor,” said Dennis Kwok, who represented the legal sector. Another lawmaker, Kwok Ka-ki, thanked his constituents while emphasizing that the deck was always stacked against the opposition:

From day one, this council was never a fair one. There were the functional constituencies. There were many things written into the system that undermined the ability of its legislators to fulfil their duties. But over so many years, my colleagues and I have never held back, and even in this extra year, we have not abandoned the aspirations of the voters that chose us. [Source]

Hosting a confusing and at times incomprehensible press conference, Carrie Lam, intermingling recycled paeans to Hong Kong’s rule of law with enthusiasm about the efficiency of a prospective rubber stamp legislature, sought to explain the disqualifications, claiming that the four lawmakers engaged in “foreign interference” by testifying about the situation in Hong Kong before foreign legislatures.

The four lawmakers ejected on Wednesday had in fact been earlier disqualified from running in the 2020 LegCo election. But after the Chief Executive announced in August the postponement of the election by a year, citing “virus concerns,” they were allowed to serve out their extended legislative terms. The New York Times’ Keith Bradsher reported at the time that Beijing voted against ejecting the lawmakers “to avoid triggering widespread public outrage with such an expulsion.”

On Wednesday, the Chief Executive reversed that decision, claiming that the disqualification of the lawmakers would be effective from the point of their first disqualification in July, signaling that their work from August until now would be considered illegitimate. That paves the way for the LegCo Secretariat to sue the lawmakers to reclaim their wages, which amount to hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong dollars. Lawmakers’ salaries are used to fund their staff and office expenses, meaning most of their wages are likely to have already been spent and are not recoverable. Previous attempts by the Legco secretariat to reclaim the wages of disqualified pan-democrat lawmakers have driven at least one person into bankruptcy.

LegCo has never been a standard bearer for fair democratic representation. Half of its 70 seats are elected from “functional constituencies,” which represent industries and establishment groups, meaning companies from Goldman Sachs to local restaurant conglomerates have equal, if not greater, representation than a Hong Kong voter, ensuring that pro-Beijing parties have held a majority after every election, despite the fact that over 50% of Hong Kong’s voters consistently vote for pro-democracy parties. Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, affords LegCo members very limited power to introduce legislation. In order to introduce any bills related to government policies, the written consent of the Chief Executive is required, in effect preventing the opposition camp from enacting any positive change.

For this reason, the role of the opposition in LegCo has always been contentious and maligned. Pro-establishment voters see their presence as obstructing and inefficient. They decry pan-dems for grandstanding through the filibuster and for petty antics ranging from pelting bananas at the Chief Executive to using the oath-taking ceremony as a platform to protest, a move which saw several lawmakers disqualified from office for the first time in 2016.

On the other side of the political spectrum, more radical elements of the pro-democracy crowd see career lawmakers from the democracy camp as ineffective and too moderate. Activists’ frustration with the impotency of the legislature was part of the motivation for the storming of the council building on July 1st, 2019. In fact, the four lawmakers ejected on Wednesday—doctors, accountants, and lawyers by trade—were among the pro-democracy politicians most frequency derided for their moderate views by the new generation of young activists.

But a LegCo position nonetheless comes with valuable powers and privileges. LegCo members can visit inmates in Hong Kong’s prisons at their discretion, a privilege that pro-democracy lawmakers have made use of to monitor the growing number of people jailed in Hong Kong on rioting charges. During the 2019 protests, lawmakers also played a key role in de-escalating police-protestor confrontations.

The elimination of the pro-democracy camp from LegCo is a stunning reversal of fortune for pro-Beijing political parties. Almost exactly one year ago, it seemed that the future of the pro-establishment faction of LegCo was in deep peril. In November 2019, pan-democrats stunned Beijing with a massive victory in local elections for the District Councils, the lowest level elected office in Hong Kong, which largely deals with neighborhood-level livelihood issues. Pro-establishment parties became hugely anxious about the prospect of pan-democrats repeating their sweep at the LegCo elections scheduled for the following year. The government was further spooked in July by record turnout in the legislative primaries for pro-democracy parties, which took place in defiance of the newly enacted National Security Law.

In response, taking advantage of the National Security Law and the coronavirus pandemic, the Chief Executive first coordinated a mass disqualification of pro-democracy LegCo candidates in July, and then postponed the election outright, extending the existing legislature’s term by a year, despite the Basic Law’s stipulation that LegCo terms should be four years long.

A vigorous debate followed within pro-democracy camp over whether to participate in the extended LegCo term. At least two lawmakers chose to resign, citing the illegitimacy of the extension, while the majority of the camp chose to continue, arguing that they would be more useful in the legislature where they could oppose and delay contentious government policies while using the position as a platform to advocate for causes such as the 12 Hong Kong fugitives detailed in Shenzhen. That debate now appears to be moot.

One year on from the celebrated District Council elections, Hong Kong’s highest governing institutions are left with no pan-democrat representation. For the majority of Hong Kong voters that have consistently voted pro-democracy, one question remains: who represents them now?

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