In a stunning move that sent Hong Kong’s political structure into crisis, all 19 pro-democracy legislators left their seats in the city’s Legislative Council (LegCo).
Following sweeping new powers given to the Hong Kong Government from Beijing, four lawmakers were disqualified from their seats that lead to the remaining party members resigning en masse.
For the first time since the handover from Great Britain in 1997, Hong Kong will be without an opposition party, and for the time being at least, have a vast majority of pro-Beijing seats.
On Wednesday, November 11 Beijing passed a resolution that allows the Hong Kong government to dismiss politicians deemed a threat to national security.
The procedure would require the city’s government to go via the courts. Almost immediately, four lawmakers were then disqualified – Alvin Yeung, Kwok Ka-Ki, Dennis Kwok and Kenneth Leung – prompting their remaining pro-democracy colleagues, all 15 of them, to resign in solidarity.
The four were part of a group of 12 pro-democracy election hopefuls who were banned from running in the now-postponed Legislative Council Elections in the summer. According to the government, they had all failed to uphold the Basic Law.
The elections were postponed to 2021 because of a voter delay, down to the pandemic. And because of this, the four had been able to keep their seats, until now.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam later admitted she sought guidance from Beijing via the Standing Committee of the National Peoples Congress (NPCSC) because she wanted the four removed quickly.
Lam has said any incoming lawmakers who wish to be seated at LegCo, must uphold Hong Kong’s Basic Law and swear allegiance to the Hong Kong SAR. She admitted this is essential as it “fulfils the political institution dominantly of comprised patriots.”
How Hong Kong’s Legislative Council works
LegCo makes and amends Hong Kong’s laws.
There are 70 seats in total, with only half of that number - 35 - directly voted for by the public. The remaining seats are often seen as largely pro-Beijing, voted for by groups with special interests such as trade and commerce. Because of the council's design by Beijing, the odds are already stacked against any opposition pro-democracy camp within the chamber.
In stunning scenes, the remaining 15 pro-democracy lawmakers resigned en masse in solidarity with their four disqualified colleagues.
Shortly after the mass decision on November 11, some of the lawmakers spoke out.
“Today we will resign from our positions because our partners, our colleagues have been disqualified by the central government's ruthless move,” said Wu Chi-wai, the leader of the pro-democracy camp then told local reporters.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo tweeted:
“It’s okay to lose, it’s not okay to quit. We’re quitting the legislature at this juncture, but we’re NOT quitting the Hong Kong democracy fight.”
It’s okay to lose, it’s not okay to quit— Claudia Mo 毛孟靜 (@ClaudiaMCMo) November 11, 2020
We’re quitting the legislature at this juncture, but we’re NOT quitting the Hong Kong democracy fight #StandWithHongKong
Pic, #AppleDaily pic.twitter.com/T1eMZOpi8w
Hong Kong is a former British colony was returned to China under the “one country, two systems” principle, giving it the right to reserve its limited freedoms than the mainland for 50 years, until 2047.
But those within the city have accused Beijing of breaking this agreement. Last year over a then-standalone extradition bill - the city was hit my seven consecutive months of protests that often turned violent - with demonstrators demanding more freedoms such as universal suffrage.
Then, in June this year, the National Security Law was enacted upon Hong Kong from Beijing, prohibiting secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion, effectively curtailing the same scenes happening again.
Where to from here?
Joseph Cheng, a political analyst and former Professor at the City University of Hong Kong, says the Chinese authorities are reluctant to tolerate any effective opposition to Hong Kong.
“They’re prepared to abandon the one country, two systems model. Chinese leaders are willing to pay the price in terms of sanctions from Western governments as they see Hong Kong a threat,” Cheng told Asia Media Centre.
“The pro-democracy movement had no choice [to quit]. It is in a minority and can no longer offer checks and balances.
The pro-democracy movement and most Hong Kong people perceive a very difficult time ahead,” Cheng said.
But Cheng, who studied at the Victoria University of Wellington, and is an Australian citizen, added that the pro-democracy movement has to adapt to the new situation.
“Hong Kong people will not give up,” he added.
New Zealand’s Foreign Minister responds
New Zealand’s new Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta tweeted in response to the lawmaker exodus, stating New Zealand is “deeply concerned at the latest developments that have eroded the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people in Hong Kong.”
She went onto to tweet “Freedom of expression and the right to elect representation [are] essential to the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong.”
Relations between Wellington and Beijing have become more strained in 2020, with the situation in Hong Kong a particular point of tension.
Wellington announced it suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, whilst the policy on military and dual-use goods and technology exports to the former British colony has changed. Travel warnings to New Zealanders in Hong Kong have also changed.
Former Ministry of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters said in a statement in July that “New Zealand can no longer trust that Hong Kong’s criminal justice system is sufficiently independent from China.”
Pro-democracy push fades
Last week’s stunning news arguably didn’t reach the international headlines as much as the protests did last year.
But it’s important to know that the events of last weeks are some of the biggest in Hong Kong’s recent history. It now leaves the city’s top political council with an even bigger pro-Beijing majority, and without democratic opposition.
It now begs the question for the future of Hong Kong’s democracy push. With protests nullified from a combination of the pandemic and the National Security Law, and no political party to represent the movement legally, the battle for democracy in Hong Kong is in a fragile state.
- Asia Media Centre