HONG KONG — China forced the ouster of four pro-democracy lawmakers from Hong Kong's legislature Wednesday, triggering a mass walkout of opposition legislators and solidifying Beijing's stranglehold on the city.
Beijing’s ruling, bypassing Hong Kong’s courts and political structures, underlined its efforts to sharply curb the financial center’s autonomy. The intervention and its timing also signaled to President-elect Joe Biden that the ruling Communist Party has no intention of easing its crackdown on Hong Kong, a subject of bitter dispute between the United States and China.
The four lawmakers — among them accountant Kenneth Leung and lawyer Alvin Yeung, who leads a liberal party — were barred in July from seeking reelection in legislative contests that were originally scheduled for September but that the government postponed for a year, citing the coronavirus.
They were initially told they could stay on until the elections. But on Wednesday, Beijing passed a resolution that any lawmakers who support Hong Kong’s independence, or are otherwise deemed unpatriotic for reasons such as petitioning foreign powers to intervene in the city’s affairs, must be disqualified.
Pro-democracy representatives had already threatened to resign en masse if that happened, and they announced hours later that they would walk out of the legislature, saying it was no longer a legitimate political forum.
“They have totally given up on ‘one country, two systems’ in Hong Kong,” said Wu Chi-wai, leader of the Democratic Party, referring to the framework by which the city enjoyed autonomy within China. “Our colleagues are being disqualified by the central government’s ruthless rules.”
They would formally resign Thursday, he said, adding, “We will continue to fight, and find a path.”
Almost a dozen pro-democracy legislators have been arrested in recent months on various charges, an indication of the pressure on them after backing anti-government protests last year.
In a news conference, the four expressed sadness and dismay, and said they had fought for the democratic principles in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution and laws.
“We are all professional people, giving up a lot of our time and resources because we want to fight for justice and the core values of Hong Kong,” said Leung, who has represented the accountancy sector for the past eight years. In a previous interview with The Washington Post, Leung pushed back against the government’s allegations that he had supported U.S. sanctions against Hong Kong officials, the reason election officials used to ban him from seeking office again.
Dennis Kwok, another ousted lawmaker, had drawn China’s ire for using filibuster rules to stall the passage of laws pushed by Beijing — including one, since approved, that criminalized mockery of the national anthem.
“If observing due process and protecting systems and functions and fighting for democracy and human rights will lead to the consequences of being disqualified, it will be my honor,” Kwok said Wednesday.
The resolution from Beijing marks the second time this year that the central government has directly intervened in a consequential political decision in Hong Kong. Under the terms of the handover, Hong Kong was meant to have a high degree of autonomy in everything but foreign affairs and defense.
In late June, Beijing passed a new national security law by fiat, similarly bypassing Hong Kong’s political structures. For the democracy movement, the law was chilling both for its content — punishing broadly worded crimes like “sedition” and “subversion of state power” with life in prison — and the way it was enacted.
The United States responded by ceasing to treat Hong Kong as separate from China and imposing sanctions on officials, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam, for undermining human rights. This week, the Treasury Department added four people to its sanctions list.
Lam told reporters Wednesday it was “logical” that one who is “not fit to run for election is not fit to be a lawmaker.” Hong Kong officials could not decide whether to let the four stay on, so her government sought Beijing’s advice, she added.
China’s liaison office in Hong Kong said in a statement that anyone who ran for office had to be “patriotic” and to love Hong Kong and China. Beijing’s decision, it added, adheres to Hong Kong’s mini-constitution — known as the Basic Law — and the national security law.
Chinese analysts expect tensions between the United States and China, including over Hong Kong, to persist under a Biden administration. Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris was among the sponsors of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which paved the way for sanctions, and has spoken in support of the democracy movement.
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said Beijing’s latest move “sends a clear message to the Biden administration that nothing has changed.”
China is saying that “we will continue to do what we want to do, and you’d better sort of come to terms with it,” Tsang said.
He added that by quitting the chamber, the pro-democracy lawmakers, while faced with a difficult situation, had effectively helped Beijing create a rubber-stamp legislature.
Lam, the chief executive, said she was not concerned about a lack of opposition members.
“We are more excited when bills are passed more efficiently,” Lam said.