The Chinese government has condemned the mass resignation of most of Hong Kong’s opposition from parliament as an “open challenge” to its authority.
Nearly all pro-democracy lawmakers have resigned in protest after four of their colleagues were deemed threats to national security and dismissed.
Many see Hong Kong’s limited democracy as now being in its death throes.
The UK government has accused China of breaching its commitments to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy.
The former British colony became part of China in 1997 but was promised it could keep some unique freedoms for 50 years.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said of Wednesday’s move to remove the four lawmakers: “Beijing’s imposition of new rules to disqualify elected legislators in Hong Kong constitutes a clear breach of the legally binding Sino-British Joint Declaration.
“China has once again broken its promises and undermined Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.”
Hong Kong’s government and authorities in Beijing have defended the disqualifications as lawful.
The mainland authorities in Beijing have taken increasingly repressive measures in Hong Kong since mass protests rocked the city last year, with regular scenes of violence in the streets.
Activists have fled and political parties have disbanded following Beijing’s passing of a new National Security Law in June, which criminalises vague acts including “subversion” and “collusion with foreign or external forces”.
The resignation of 15 opposition lawmakers in response to the disqualification of their colleagues will leave a once-vibrant legislature filled with politicians seen as loyal to the Chinese authorities.
In a last act of defiance, one opposition lawmaker unfurled a banner in the assembly building on Thursday saying the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, was hurting Hong Kong.
“She will stink for 10,000 years,” it read.
China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office on Thursday said the mass walk-out openly challenged the Chinese government’s authority and the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.
It also said the move showed pro-democracy lawmakers’ “stance of stubborn resistance” against the central government.
“If these lawmakers hope to make use of their resignation to provoke radical opposition and beg for foreign interference, they have miscalculated,” a spokesperson said.
What led to this?
On Wednesday, a resolution passed by China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee said lawmakers should be disqualified if they support Hong Kong independence, refuse to acknowledge China’s sovereignty, ask foreign forces to interfere in the city’s affairs, or in other ways threaten national security.
Immediately afterwards, Hong Kong dismissed four opposition members of the city’s Legislative Council (LegCo).
Later, another 15 pro-democracy lawmakers announced they would resign en masse in solidarity. On Thursday, they were absent from their seats in the LegCo.
One of the lawmakers who resigned, Wu Chi-wai, told reporters the developments made it clear that Beijing was undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy.
“I can only say that, it is the [plot] that the Beijing government has been drawing for a long time and today they get to the end of the story and tell the whole world that ‘one country, two systems’ has come to an end,” he said.
But pro-democracy activists, he said, “cannot give up” even if “it takes a long time, maybe generations”.
The city’s 70-seat legislature has 21 opposition members. Only two of those will now remain in the parliament.
Why were the four dismissed and who are they?
City officials said they had already been disqualified from running in the next election, originally scheduled for September 2020 but postponed to next year.
Beijing and Hong Kong officials have not given details on how exactly the four men had contravened the rules but here is what we know about them. All four are considered moderates and they have never supported Hong Kong independence.
Alvin Yeung: Leader of the pro-democracy Civic party and a practising barrister. He was banned from taking part in this year’s election after he signed a joint letter to US senators calling for sanctions on Hong Kong
Dennis Kwok: The barrister is a founding member of the Civic Party. He was earlier accused of paralysing LegCo by using filibustering tactics, in a move the Chinese government called “malicious”. He was banned from elections after signing the sanctions letter
Kenneth Leung: The senior tax consultant is a member of the pro-democracy parliamentary group, the Professionals Guild. According to news site SCMP, officials barred him from the elections after accusing him of indirectly appealing to the US government for sanctions
Kwok Ka-ki: The Civic Party member was also barred from contesting in this year’s elections. However, the urologist did not sign the joint letter or attend a trip to the US. Officials said he had a “purported intention to call on foreign powers to sanction Hong Kong”, according to SCMP
What does this mean for Hong Kong?
The developments underscore the rapid expansion of Beijing’s influence in the territory, pushing for loyalty from all levels of power.
Observers say that without the pro-democracy lawmakers, there will be no effective opposition and LegCo will be reduced to a rubberstamp parliament.
The city’s leader is already chosen by pro-Beijing committees, and only half of the LegCo seats are directly elected.
Under the terms of the handover between Britain and China, Hong was meant to have its own legal system, multiple political parties, and rights including freedom of assembly and free speech for 50 years.
The “one country, two systems” principle – named so because such rights do not exist elsewhere in China – is enshrined in the Basic Law.