China targets Hong Kong’s lawmakers as it squelches dissent

By Austin Ramzy, Tiffany May and Elaine Yu

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 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. U.S. 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 Donald 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, 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 semi-autonomous 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 Wednesday was Hong Kong’s legislature, the Legislative Council, where a group of pro-democracy lawmakers have argued that Beijing’s campaign threatens to erode Hong Kong’s status as a global, open city.

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

City officials then ejected 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 Thursday.

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

The lawmakers said they believed that 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.

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 authorities broad power to target protest and dissent.

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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