THERE IS “nothing to be ashamed of”, said Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, when asked how she would feel about the territory’s legislature passing controversial bills after being stripped of an opposition by the expulsions and resignations of pro-democracy lawmakers. “We are more excited when bills are passed more efficiently.” Mrs Lam’s remarks on November 11th signalled a dark new phase of China’s campaign to snuff out Hong Kong’s freedoms and usher in rule by rubber stamp as practised on the Chinese mainland.
Storm clouds had been gathering over the Legislative Council (commonly known as Legco) ever since China imposed a draconian national-security law on Hong Kong on June 30th. In July the local government barred 12 politicians, including four sitting members of Legco, from standing in elections that were due to be held in September. It accused them of opposing the new law and other political misbehaviour. Shortly afterwards it postponed the elections for a year, citing the pandemic.
Early this month police arrested eight opposition politicians, including five Legco members, for their alleged involvement in a scuffle in the chamber. Then came the ruling by the parliament in Beijing, the National People’s Congress (NPC), that resulted in the final purge and, on the same day, Mrs Lam’s chilling response. It said Hong Kong’s government could disbar any legislator who did not accept Chinese rule in Hong Kong or who otherwise violated national security.
The Hong Kong authorities responded swiftly to the NPC’s edict. It declared that the four legislators who had been barred from re-election would also be stripped of their seats. In response, 15 other opposition lawmakers held a press conference to announce they would resign in sympathy (see picture). With two others from their camp having already stepped down in September in protest against the postponement of the polls, their move would leave Legco with no opposition voice for the first time in decades. The legislators were formally submitting their resignations as The Economist went to press.
Just a year ago prospects looked much brighter for pro-democracy politicians. In local-council elections, held in November 2019 during anti-government unrest that had been sweeping the city since mid-year, they made unprecedented gains. It was widely believed that they would have achieved similar success in this year’s Legco polls, if they had been held—even though only half of the body’s 70 seats are directly elected. By issuing this week’s ruling the NPC has made it clear that even if opposition politicians were to win a majority of seats (in the most recent elections in 2016 they fell just short), their numbers could be whittled down again at the government’s whim.
The four legislators who were disbarred following the NPC’s ruling were Dennis Kwok, Kwok Ka-ki, Kenneth Leung and Alvin Yeung. They are hardly radicals. “We follow the rules of procedure, we wear suits. The four of us—two lawyers, one doctor, one accountant—are the most moderate of moderates,” says Dennis Kwok. The government has not spelled out why they were kicked out. But in July, when they were disqualified from standing again, they were variously accused of signing petitions against the national-security law, pledging to block passage of the budget were democrats to gain a majority and supporting American sanctions on Hong Kong. In March Mr Leung travelled to California to attend a conference about such sanctions. But he says he did not encourage the imposition of them, fearing they would harm Hong Kong’s economy.
Pro-democracy politicians—at least those not disqualified—may still stand in next year’s elections. Mr Leung says the next Legco must have an opposition. But the trend is clear. Vocal opposition in Legco, which increasingly has involved filibustering by democrats, will be throttled. The opposition “may have to shift to venues outside the establishment” to express discontent, says Eliza W.Y. Lee of the University of Hong Kong—although, as she notes, opportunities for street activism are being shut down, too. The national-security law, along with coronavirus-related restrictions, have all but stamped out unrest.
It is unlikely that many members of the public will be upset by the democrats’ departure from Legco. Those who support the government have long regarded them as troublemakers bent on disrupting legislative proceedings. Opinion polls suggest the government’s many critics have little hope that the legislature will ever be democratic. So, as the Communist Party tightens control over Legco, they increasingly regard the involvement of pro-democracy politicians in it as meaningless, says Ho-Fung Hung of Johns Hopkins University. In September the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute canvassed views on the decision to delay the elections. It found an almost even split among opposition supporters between those who wanted their camp’s legislators to carry on working during Legco’s extended term, and those who preferred that they resign. “I’ve been receiving a lot of messages of support from members of the Hong Kong public saying they don’t want us to give credence to this institution anymore. They tell us that by remaining, we give it some sort of credibility,” says Mr Kwok.
Such pessimism is easy to understand. Since the security law was adopted there has been a steady stream of news that has spooked Hong Kong’s democrats. Several outspoken academics have been forced to quit, or have not had their contracts renewed. Earlier this month a television journalist was arrested after helping to produce a story for Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, RTHK, that was critical of the police response to an attack by thugs on anti-government protesters during last year’s protests. Her alleged offence was obtaining car-ownership details from a government database using a false pretext.
But the existence of an opposition in Legco, however frustrated by the electoral system (almost half of the seats are reserved for interest groups such as industries and professions), has long made Hong Kong’s political system stand out from the mainland’s. The prospect of a Legco deprived even of the few teeth it has is indeed a bleak one. ■
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Leaving in despair”