HONG KONG — Pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong’s legislature said on Wednesday that they would resign en masse after Beijing forced the ouster of four of their colleagues, a dramatic act of protest that will leave the political opposition without a voice in one of the city’s last major forums for dissent.
The departures will reshape the city’s political landscape, which has been upended since China imposed a national security law on Hong Kong this summer. With the imprimatur of Beijing, the 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 semiautonomous Chinese territory for much of last year.
The four lawmakers who were removed from office — Dennis Kwok, Kwok Ka-ki, Kenneth Leung and Alvin Yeung — had previously been barred from running for re-election this year. Hours after their removal, the remaining 15 members of their camp said they were stepping down.
“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 on Thursday.
“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 carry out its policies. The legislature has been one of the main scenes for opposition to the government, after street demonstrations have been largely shut down by social distancing requirements and increasingly aggressive police tactics.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said the legislative body would continue functioning regardless of whether the pro-democracy lawmakers were present. She dismissed suggestions that the disqualifications would tarnish the legislature if it pushed through pro-government policies.
“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.”
Along with the national security law, the new powers represent the rapid expansion of Beijing’s influence over the territory. The Hong Kong government will now have the ability to remove lawmakers directly for failure to meet loyalty requirements, without going through the courts.
The decision Wednesday by 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 would 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” would 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.”
Hong Kong’s legislature has always been stacked against the opposition. Half of its 70 members come from functional constituencies that generally represent sectors of the economy and select pro-establishment representatives. But the pro-democracy camp has usually made up a sizable minority, particularly in the seats directly elected by the public.
Their increasingly confrontational presence in the legislature 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. But the Hong Kong opposition has seen its clout gradually whittled away, raising questions about the future of “one country, two systems,” the political framework that was designed to preserve democratic freedoms in the former British colony after it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
In 2016 and 2017, Hong Kong removed six pro-democracy lawmakers who had conducted forms of protest while taking their oaths of office. But those moves had required both local court rulings and a legal review by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. The new rules give the Hong Kong government far greater leeway in removing opposition lawmakers.
Lau Siu-kai, a former Hong Kong government official who is now a senior adviser to Beijing, said the central government had grown increasingly frustrated with the pro-democracy camp’s tactics in the legislature, which it saw as stalling important work on issues such as a weak economy and the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think Beijing does not want to wait to see whether the opposition will really change its stance because circumstances are so grave that Beijing wants to act as soon as possible,” he said.
Earlier this month, the police arrested eight pro-democracy lawmakers over a heated meeting in May, when there were disputes over control of a key committee. No establishment lawmakers were arrested; the government blocked a private prosecution against one of them who dragged an opposition lawmaker to the ground.
One of the ousted lawmakers, Dennis Kwok, controlled that committee and had drawn widespread criticism from Hong Kong and Beijing officials over delaying tactics, including slowing the consideration of certain bills. Despite the disqualification, he said he had no regrets over his actions.
“If observing due process, protecting systems and functions, and fighting for democracy and human rights would lead to the consequences of being disqualified, it would be my honor,” he said.
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