China Targets Hong Kong’s Lawmakers as It Squelches Dissent

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HONG KONG — China has moved to tame one of Hong Kong’s few remaining avenues for dissent and democratic ideals, as it effectively expelled four elected opposition lawmakers from office, prompting vows to resign from their allies.

The departures will reshape the city’s political landscape, which has been upended since China imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong this summer that gave the authorities broad powers to crack down on any resistance. They mark the intensification of a campaign that has put Hong Kong’s global reputation as a bastion for laissez-faire regulation, freedom of speech and rule of law in jeopardy.

The targeting of the democratically elected lawmakers comes at a time when democratic ideals, and the countries that have traditionally championed them, have been plunged into uncertainty. American officials have protested Hong Kong’s treatment and imposed sanctions on the territory and some of its leaders. But the tumultuous presidential election, in which President Trump has refused to accept the results of the vote, and the devastating spread of the coronavirus have weakened Washington’s standing on such issues.

In Hong Kong, the Beijing-backed authorities have arrested pro-democracy leaders and activists as they resolved to bring Hong Kong to heel and put an end to the protests that engulfed the semiautonomous Chinese territory for much of last year. They have challenged Hong Kong’s independent court system and put pressure on news outlets that strike a defiant tone.

Their target on Wednesday was Hong Kong’s legislature, the Legislative Council, where a group of pro-democracy lawmakers have loudly argued that Beijing’s campaign threatens to erode Hong Kong’s status as a global, open city.

Beijing officials moved on Wednesday to silence those voices, outlining broad powers that they had granted to their handpicked representatives in the Hong Kong government to remove lawmakers from office.

City officials then ejected the four lawmakers — Dennis Kwok, Kwok Ka-ki, Kenneth Leung and Alvin Yeung — from the Legislative Council. Hours after their removal, the remaining 15 members of their bloc said they were stepping down in solidarity.

“Together we stand!” lawmakers in the pro-democracy camp chanted as they held hands in a conference room in the Legislative Council building. One of the legislators, Wu Chi-wai, told reporters that they would tender their resignations in protest on Thursday.

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“Under authoritarianism, the road to democracy will be extremely long and arduous, but we will absolutely not be defeated by its pressures,” Mr. Wu said. “We will inevitably find new paths.”

The lawmakers said that they believed the legislature is now so compromised by the government’s power to stamp out opposition that they must work outside the system.

“Many people will consider today a dark day. It is hard for me to say it isn’t,” said Kwok Ka-ki, one of the four lawmakers who was removed. “As long as our resolve to fight for freedom, equality and justice remains unchanged, one day we will see the return of the core values we cherish.”

Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed government appeared to welcome the resignations, which will give it much freer rein to pursue its agenda. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, dismissed suggestions that the absence of the opposition lawmakers would tarnish the legislature if it pushed through policies favored by Beijing’s supporters.

“Of course we want the Legislative Council to pass the bills that we propose. We feel all the more excited when they can be passed in an efficient manner,” she said. “As the executive branch, we work in the hopes that the council will support and pass our bills.”

Hong Kong has never been a standard-bearer for democratic ideals. Its top leader, the chief executive, is appointed in a process controlled by Beijing. Half of the Legislative Council’s 70 members are selected by groups called functional constituencies that represent various industries and other establishment groups.

But the council, nicknamed LegCo, had been one of the most visible signs that Hong Kong remained distinct from mainland China, where the Communist Party dominates government and dissent is rapidly silenced. Many of the seats are elected directly by the public, helping to give the pro-democracy camp a sizable minority and a forum to express its views to the establishment.

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The council has also stood as a symbol of the “one country, two systems” legal framework that was designed to preserve democratic freedoms in the former British colony after it returned to Chinese rule in 1997. That framework allowed Hong Kong to protect economic freedoms and personal liberties while remaining part of China. It even called for eventual universal suffrage, a major goal of pro-democracy supporters.

The framework is now under attack. Chinese officials have challenged the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary. The city’s press freedoms have come under pressure, including the arrest in August of Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy media tycoon. The national security law, which China imposed on Hong Kong this summer, gave the authorities broad power to target protest and dissent.

Chinese officials are now taking aim at the Legislative Council.

Last summer, weeks after the national security law was enacted, the Hong Kong government postponed an election set for September by a year, a move criticized by pro-democracy lawmakers as a naked effort to avoid defeat at the polls.

Before the postponement, the government had also forbidden the four lawmakers who were ousted on Wednesday from running for re-election, accusing them of saying they would indiscriminately vote down legislative proposals and supporting U.S. sanctions on officials deemed responsible for rights abuses in Hong Kong. Despite the disqualifications, they were allowed to remain in office.

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.”

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The move is not completely unprecedented. In 2016 and 2017, Hong Kong removed six pro-democracy lawmakers who had conducted forms of protest while taking their oaths of office. But those moves had required both local court rulings and a legal review by the Chinese standing committee. The new rules give the Hong Kong government far greater leeway in removing opposition lawmakers.

As other venues for dissent have been closed off, the pro-democracy lawmakers have become increasingly active. Establishment lawmakers had complained about filibustering tactics used by the opposition camp, even calling for prosecutions under the national security law.

Lau Siu-kai, a former Hong Kong government official who is now a senior adviser to Beijing, said the central government had grown frustrated with the pro-democracy camp’s tactics in the legislature, which it saw as stalling important work on issues such as a weak economy and the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think Beijing does not want to wait to see whether the opposition will really change its stance because circumstances are so grave that Beijing wants to act as soon as possible,” he said.

Earlier this month, the police arrested eight pro-democracy lawmakers over a heated meeting in May, when there were disputes over control of a key committee. No establishment lawmakers were arrested; the government blocked a private prosecution against one of them who dragged an opposition lawmaker to the ground.

One of the ousted lawmakers, Dennis Kwok, controlled that committee and had drawn widespread criticism from Hong Kong and Beijing officials over delaying tactics, including slowing the consideration of certain bills. Despite the disqualification, he said he had no regrets over his actions.

“There’s no point in doing this job if you can’t do it properly,” he said.

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