So Leung was taken aback when Hong Kong authorities last month barred him and 11 others from running in elections. Though he had never supported U.S. sanctions on Hong Kong, which have since come to pass, his purported misdeed was failing to speak out against Washington’s measures with sufficient vigor.
Leung’s case epitomizes the new Hong Kong, where activities that were once permissible under the city’s laws now invite official retribution; even staying on the sidelines can be insufficient for some to avoid the ire of China’s Communist Party and its local proxies.
While Beijing has spoken of “red lines” against Hong Kong independence, its passage of a new security law has extended those prohibitions to activities that were routine for lawmakers, such as criticizing a government policy or meeting with foreign officials.
“They want to demonstrate that even Kenneth, just a moderate in this camp, you can ax just like that,” he said, making a cutting action with his hand. “The process is not fair or transparent. It is whatever they want to say.”
Beijing’s narrowing tolerance signals its intent to tightly control political discussion in Hong Kong — including in the city’s semi-democratic Legislative Council, whose structure favors the pro-China establishment. Opposition lawmakers are weighing whether to give up on the chamber and find other ways to reflect their constituents’ aspirations in a system stacked against them.
“It does not matter whether one is a self-proclaimed moderate or radical. Beijing flexes its muscles and exerts its power to purge the opposition,” said Kenneth Chan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University and former pro-democracy lawmaker.
Beijing “wants to pick the opposition,” he added, and “remove sooner or later individuals who are not willing to kowtow” to the party.
'Assistive role' in sanctions
Leung went a step too far, election officials say, when he traveled to Napa, Calif., in March for a discussion on Hong Kong-U.S. relations. The delegation included U.S. officials such as Hanscom Smith, the consul general in Hong Kong, and China-friendly establishment figures such as Regina Ip and Horace Cheung, a lawmaker representing the city’s largest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB).
Leung, a London School of Economics graduate, said he had hoped to use the trip to understand how U.S. sanctions against Hong Kong would work in practice, after President Trump signed legislation authorizing penalties against officials who undermined the territory’s autonomy.
Accountants and Western businesses broadly have expressed concern that sanctions could damage Hong Kong’s viability as a financial center.
“I really do not want Hong Kong to be sanctioned. If anyone tries to put sanctions on Hong Kong, including the U.S., it will not be a very welcoming place for businesses,” Leung said in an interview. “It was a bipartisan conference, it was open and transparent, and that’s why I went.”
Leung repeated his stance to election officials, who nonetheless disqualified him for not opposing sanctions explicitly enough during the trip and at a subsequent news conference.
“Soliciting foreign governments to interfere with the internal affairs of the People’s Republic of China and/or the Hong Kong government, especially by imposing sanctions, is an act endangering national security,” election officials said. While Leung “might not be directly requesting or appealing for” sanctions, they added, “the supporting or assistive role” they asserted he played rendered him unsuitable for office.
Leung described their explanation as “total bulls---.”
Photos of Cheung from the same trip, taken and publicized by the State Department, were used in campaign brochures for the DAB — placed above a promise to voters that the party can “reflect Hong Kong’s sentiments to the outside world.”
Cheung was not disqualified, nor were any hopefuls from his party. Cheung didn’t respond immediately to an emailed request for comment.
Calls for boycott
Besides Leung, election officials disqualified prominent activist Joshua Wong, other young candidates allied with him, and sitting lawmakers including Dennis Kwok and Alvin Yeung of the pro-democracy Civic Party.
The reasons given ranged from opposing the national security law to writing opinion pieces in foreign newspapers, all cited as proof that the candidates in question would not be able to uphold Hong Kong’s law. Kwok, a lawyer, was disqualified because the authorities said he would use his position as an elected official to force the government to change its stance on certain issues — the job of the opposition in a democratic system.
The Legislative Council has never been a fully democratic forum; pro-democracy advocates want all its representatives to be directly elected, along with Hong Kong’s chief executive. And while it has served as an arena for people to air views through their representatives, critics say it exists to give the appearance of due process.
“Once you are elected, there’s not much you can do. It is as though the opposition is playing a game of tennis without the right to serve,” said Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, a pro-democracy lawmaker.
Beijing, meanwhile, has extended the term of the current Legislative Council for another year, though Hong Kong has no constitutional provision for this. Some pro-democracy lawmakers are wrestling with whether to stay on until then or, like Chu, boycott the chamber.
“A boycott is more effective than staying in the council and just working as a loyal opposition within the council,” he said.
The disqualified candidates say the government’s aim is to further erode the legislature’s limited power and force all candidates to firmly support the national security law, which imposes sentences of up to life imprisonment for vague offenses such as subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign collusion.
Assessing whether the law has wide support, as Beijing and the Hong Kong government assert, is difficult; polling firm YouGov posed questions recently on whether the law had damaged freedoms out of concern that asking as much could be construed as a breach. But a majority of people polled by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute said they opposed the disqualifications of the dozen election candidates.
Leung is undecided on the boycott. His main concern is the economy, which he worries will not recover, especially after authorities used the security law to arrest media tycoon Jimmy Lai and raid the offices of Lai’s newspaper, Apple Daily.
But his disqualification, Leung said, has sent a message — and forced his colleagues to make a choice.
“It is now up to them either to give up the fight in the legislature, a forum which [Beijing] and the Hong Kong government consider part of their establishment, and fight with people on the street,” he said, “or adhere to these new rules.”
Tiffany Liang contributed to this report.