As the news broke around the world that Hong Kong’s Legislative Council would have no opposition for the first time since 1997, governments worldwide have roundly condemned Beijing and the Hong Kong government for disqualifying four elected lawmakers in a move that saw the entire pro-democracy bloc collectively resign in protest.
On Thursday, Western governments spoke out and threatened retaliatory policies. The British Foreign Office officially declared that Beijing had breached the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a legally binding treaty between China and the U.K., and warned that it would impose sanctions in response. Reuters reported on the potential sanctions that London might introduce:
Britain summoned China’s ambassador, Liu Xiaoming, to express its deep concerns and [Foreign Secretary Dominic] Raab’s deputy, Nigel Adams, told parliament that it was considering possible sanctions on individuals over China’s actions.
“We will continue to consider designations under our Magnitsky-style sanctions regime,” said Adams, Britain’s minister for Asia, referring to sanctions similar to those imposed on those deemed responsible for human rights abuses under the U.S. Magnitsky Act. He was asked by lawmakers if Britain would sanction Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Adams said it would not be helpful to speculate on names at this stage. [Source]
This is the third time that the U.K. has officially declared that the Sino-British Joint Declaration was breached. The other two declarations came after a Hong Kong bookseller was kidnapped from Hong Kong in 2016, and after the passing of the National Security Law in June of this year.
From the White House, national security advisor Robert O’Brien warned that the U.S. would continue to “to identify and sanction those responsible for extinguishing Hong Kong’s freedom.” The Trump administration had earlier this week imposed sanctions on four more officials from Hong Kong and the mainland involved in enforcing Hong Kong’s National Security Law.
The Canadian government announced that it was creating a new pathway to citizenship for young Hong Kongers. The move came in defiance of threats last month by the Chinese ambassador regarding the safety of Canadian citizens in Hong Kong, should Canada continue to welcome immigrants and asylees from the city. The Globe and Mail’s Robert Fife and Steven Chase reported that the new arrangement would make it substantially easier for recent graduates to work and eventually become Canadian permanent residents:
[Immigration minister] Mendicino said the new work visas will encourage recent Hong Kong graduates and those with essential work experience to come to Canada to study, work and settle. Applicants must have recently completed postsecondary studies to apply for an open work permit, which will be valid for up to three years.
Once in Canada, they can obtain permanent-resident status providing they have one year of work experience and meet language requirements. Ottawa will also fast-track study permit applications for anyone from Hong Kong.
As well, the government will waive application processing fees for Hong Kong residents in Canada who want to extend their stay. [Source]
While welcoming the move, activists in Canada expressed disappointment that less was being done to help older Hong Kongers, many of whom played supporting roles during the 2019 protests. An immigration policy announced by the U.K. in July to allow Hong Kongers with BN(O) passports to immigrate to Britain has conversely been criticized for benefitting older people but not doing enough to help young ones.
Even lawmakers from Germany, which has often been reluctant to speak out against China’s human rights abuses, condemned the disqualifications and suggested that retaliatory policies should be considered.
— Christian Lindner (@c_lindner) November 11, 2020
Beijing reacted angrily to everything. Calling the ejection the “right medicine,” Beijing told foreign governments that it was none of their business. After denouncing the four disqualified lawmakers for being unpatriotic and firing them on Wednesday, it similarly denounced the remaining opposition for their mass resignations the following day.
Part of the reason why the disqualifications were met with such a volume of condemnation worldwide is likely the four disqualified lawmakers’ past contacts with Western parliamentarians. Unlike the relatively unknown newcomers who were booted from LegCo in 2016 and 2018, these lawmakers were well known in the hallways of D.C., London, and Berlin. In August last year, two of the disqualified figures, Alvin Yeung and Dennis Kwok, visited the U.S. and met with legislators and human rights groups. In March, Kenneth Leung met with U.S. officials at a forum in San Francisco where pro-Beijing lawmakers from Hong Kong were also present. Those visits were the Hong Kong government’s justification for the initial disqualification of the candidates in July. In fact, it has historically been the case that legislators from Hong Kong on both sides of the political spectrum have regularly engaged in parliamentary visits abroad, where they have exchanged their political views with their legislative peers.
In Hong Kong, analysts have struggled to grapple with the upended political reality. Heavyweight legal scholars wrestled with the legal basis for the latest disqualification. Unlike previous disqualifications that relied on an NPCSC interpretation of the Basic Law, the legal basis for the latest decision seemed to have come from entirely new legislation from Beijing, violating the Basic Law.
HKU’s @snmyoung calls the decision “quite extraordinary” & a “constitutional crisis”: “The actual legal basis…seems to have come from the decision itself, it’s not some other legal basis that already preexisted in law…it seems like [the NPCSC] is making new law.” https://t.co/r2QAsORlx5
— Antony Dapiran (@antd) November 13, 2020
There is been disagreement about whether the pro-democracy bloc’s resignation was the right move at all. The Guardian’s Lily Kuo and Helen Davidson reported on comments from one China scholar who doubted whether choosing to leave the legislature was politically shrewd:
By resigning en masse, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp will effectively shut off one of the last formal channels of opposition within the government. The resignations will not affect quorum and the council’s ability to meet. Observers say this is probably what Beijing hoped would happen.
“A symbolic gesture that doesn’t give you anything in practice, and a symbolic gesture that the other side would have calculated you would do and is quite happy for you to do, is a symbolic gesture that is effectively an own goal,” said Prof Steve Tsang, the director of the SOAS China Institute. “It’s Beijing flexing its muscle to say it can control Hong Kong.”
Tsang said the new law would make it more difficult for pro-democracy constituents to elect legislative councillors that could speak up for them in the future, “which is exactly why they shouldn’t resign”. [Source]
But BBC News’ Preeti Jha quoted another Hong Kong expert who argued that the remaining members of the pro-democracy camp “had no good options”:
The expulsion on Wednesday “formally marked the end of any legal dissent” too, said Victoria Tin-bor Hui, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.
Speaking to the BBC from New York, she said the lawmakers “had no good option”.
“Even if they didn’t resign today they would be picked out one by one,” she said. “Beijing is trying to turn Hong Kong’s legislature into the equivalent of the National People’s Congress, which is a rubberstamp parliament.” [Source]
The names of pro-democracy legislators were gradually struck off the LegCo building’s directory on Thursday.
The pro-Beijing camp, now sole occupants of the LegCo building, finds itself in uncharted territory. The New York Times’ Vivian Wang and Tiffany May reported on the contrasting feelings of two pro-establishment lawmakers:
Even some lawmakers who supported the disqualification of the four lawmakers expressed concern about the mass resignations, indicating that the Legislative Council could lose legitimacy without an opposition faction. Felix Chung, the leader of the pro-Beijing Liberal Party, told reporters that the mass departures were “not healthy.”
“Everywhere in the world, the government always has opposition voices,” Mr. Chung said, as word spread on Wednesday of likely resignations. “If they all leave, I don’t know what will happen to Hong Kong.”
But Tommy Cheung, another Liberal Party member, disputed the idea that the pro-democracy members’ exits would leave the legislature with one voice. He noted that members of his party, which advocates business interests, had fought the government on raising the minimum wage and on granting statutory paternity leave.
“We were basically the opposition when it comes to nutrition labeling,” he said. [Source]