BEIJING — The election of two young, pro-independence activists to Hong Kong’s legislature was supposed to help the city’s struggle for greater autonomy.
But two months after Sixtus “Baggio” Leung, 30, and Yau Wai-ching, 25, were elected, they have yet to take their seats in the legislative chamber, shape any policy or pass any laws.
After altering their oaths of office as a protest, Leung and Yau find themselves caught in a legal standoff that may bring exactly what they campaigned against: interference from Beijing.
Hong Kong’s government, which is loyal to Beijing, has asked a local court to consider whether Leung and Yau have the right to be sworn in — but that may not be the last word.
A Hong Kong official on Friday confirmed that China’s National People’s Congress will step in to issue an “interpretation” on the matter, news that will intensify fears that the city’s judicial independence is under threat.
Beijing, spooked by the rise of a small but vocal pro-independence camp, wants to “show Hong Kong who’s boss,” said Ho-fung Hung, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University. “But if they can override decisions, that amounts to rule by edict.”
Hong Kong is a former British colony that was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 with a promise that the territory would enjoy certain civil and political rights for 50 years.
Part of the population thinks Beijing is reneging on that promise and is tightening its grip on the territory’s political, legal and cultural affairs well ahead of the 2047 deadline.
During the 2014 umbrella revolution , tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets to call for universal suffrage and the protection of their way of life. But that ended without a significant concession from the state — a source of anger that has fueled some calls for independence.
The latest crisis began when Leung and Yau were taking the oath of office. Lawmakers are asked to declare loyalty to “the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China” and the Basic Law.
Leung pledged fealty instead to the “Hong Kong nation” and pronounced “China” as “Chee-na” — a pejorative Japanese slang term for China that dates to the Japanese occupation during World War II. He also wrapped himself in a banner bearing the words “Hong Kong is not China.” Lau called the People’s Republic of China the “People’s re-f---ing of China.”
Beijing was not amused. In recent weeks, China’s party-controlled news media have stepped up criticism of Leung and Yau, implying that their swearing and carrying on constituted a threat to national security.
“If the matter cannot be properly handled,” Mo Jihong, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the People’s Daily, a Communist Party newspaper, “the central government should take decisive action and leave no potential threat.”
“The tendency of ‘Hong Kong independence’ must be nipped in the bud,” he said.
A group of Chinese business leaders took out a newspaper ad criticizing the two Hong Kong politicians. “Yau Wai-ching and Leung Chung-hang have publicly trodden the dignity of the country, insulted the Chinese people and hurt the feelings of the whole nation,” it read.
To Leung and Yau’s independence-minded supporters, their actions are not about hurting feelings but advancing free speech and political resistance.
Yet others, including many in the democratic camp, wonder whether their tactics aren’t counterproductive. Some think Hong Kong’s best hope lies in greater autonomy, not independence, and are wary of giving hardliners in Hong Kong and Beijing an excuse to crack down.
And that’s exactly what might happen, said Ding Xueliang, a professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
“The more you mention of Hong Kong independence, the less likely the high-degree-of-autonomy promise will be protected,” he said. “That is the long-term consequence.”
Luna Lin contributed to this report.