09:17, November 11 111 0 theguardian.com

2020-11-11 09:17:04
'An own goal': experts question resignation of Hong Kong lawmakers

On Thursday, Hong Kong’s legislature will look remarkably more like its counterpart in mainland China. It will sit without any opposition lawmakers after they announced their resignations in protest at four colleagues disqualified from the body on Wednesday under a new power granted to Hong Kong authorities by Beijing to dismiss “unpatriotic” politicians with immediate effect.

The 70-member legislative council will then consist of only pro-Beijing lawmakers, turning into what several observers have described as a rubber-stamping body like China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), which passes pre-approved measures.

“This is the end of any meaningful opposition. This is exactly the model that we are expected to shift to. It’s a huge paradigm shift,” said Kenneth Chan, a political scientist at the Hong Kong Baptist University and former pro-democracy lawmaker.

“Opposition in the legislative council has always been an eyesore to the powers that be. They would like LegCo to behave, just like NPC deputies,” he said.

On Wednesday, Beijing released a vague statement barring anyone from the legislature seen as supporting independence, seeking help from foreign forces to “interfere” in Hong Kong’s affairs or otherwise committing “acts that endanger national security”. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, later added anyone objecting “in principle” to the sweeping national security law implemented in June, and said a government “must be composed of patriots”.

The law took immediate effect and was used to disqualify four sitting members.

Critics described it as a “death-knell” for the remaining democratic institutions of Hong Kong, whose courts, legal system and society are meant to enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” from Beijing under the “one country, two systems” framework.

Analysts said the move, while abrupt, represents a progression of efforts to prevent pro-democracy candidates from holding office. In 2016, authorities disqualified a number of young lawmakers on the basis of oath-taking procedures. In 2018, Agnes Chow, a young activist, was barred from running on the basis that her party included self-determination for Hong Kong in its platform.

After a year of protests and public anger at the government, as well as victories for opposition candidates in local district elections, pro-democracy candidates had launched a campaign to get half of the legislative council’s seats in the next election.

But in June, a dozen candidates, including the four lawmakers disqualified on Wednesday, were barred from running after they made campaign promises to block government legislation if they succeeded. That election, scheduled for September, was delayed after the government invoked emergency powers, citing the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Beijing has decided to snuff out the opposition. They want to minimise as effectively as possible the opposition forces so there won’t be any,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Others questioned the timing of the new measure and the targeting of four lawmakers who are considered moderates. In the past, the conventional wisdom was that Beijing would not tolerate the most radical wings of the pro-democracy camp.

“The major message is that after today, they don’t want to provide room of survival for even moderate democrats,” said Ivan Choy, a senior lecturer on electoral politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

After the controversial delay of the legislative election in August, the NPC’s standing committee, the decision-making body of China’s legislature, said that all current lawmakers would continue their duties “for no less than one year” until a new session began.

The change after three months suggests to Choy a shift in Beijing’s thinking, perhaps motivated by distraction in the US as the Trump administration – a supporter of the protests in Hong Kong – deals with the president’s election loss.

“Perhaps they are taking advantage of this transitional period to do that – because they know they are busy,” he said.

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 had hoped for.

“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”.