Hong Kong’s government has ousted four opposition lawmakers, prompting the resignation of most of the pro-democracy camp in the territory’s de facto parliament, in what critics say is part of a growing attack on its autonomy.
The government made the decision using new powers granted by Beijing on Wednesday that allow the removal of lawmakers on national security grounds. This includes supporting Hong Kong independence or inviting foreign interference in the city’s affairs.
“I would urge the people of Hong Kong we should not give up. We can’t give up,” said Kwok Ka-ki, one of the four ousted legislators, who described the disqualifications as “the saddest day of Hong Kong”.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, defended the decision, saying it was “constitutional, lawful, reasonable and necessary”.
In Washington, the White House slammed the move. Robert O’Brien, the US national security adviser, said it was more evidence that the “one country, two systems” model was a “fig leaf covering for the Chinese Communist party’s expanding one-party dictatorship in Hong Kong”.
The development also sparked bipartisan condemnation from Capitol Hill where Democrats and Republicans have become increasingly critical of China, particularly over its pro-democracy crackdown in Hong Kong.
“Democracy in Hong Kong is gasping for air. This morning, China’s unelected and unaccountable National People’s Congress standing committee took another grave step toward stripping the people of Hong Kong of their sacred rights and freedoms,” said Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida, and Jeff Markey, a Democratic senator from Oregon.
The move comes as Hong Kong’s opposition politicians, independent journalists, educators and judges are facing increasing pressure after Beijing imposed a tough national security law on the territory in June.
Outspoken academics have been forced to resign and a senior journalist at RTHK, the public broadcaster, was recently arrested after producing a report critical of police conduct during anti-government protests last year.
Critics say the security law threatens the civic and political freedoms granted to the territory on its handover by the UK to China in 1997. Beijing’s supporters argue it was necessary to restore order to the city.
Pro-democracy lawmakers in the Legislative Council have come under particular pressure, with the city delaying elections for the assembly until next year, citing the coronavirus pandemic.
The National People’s Congress Standing Committee, Beijing’s top legislative body, on Wednesday granted the Hong Kong government the authority to disqualify lawmakers who promoted or supported independence or refused to recognise China’s sovereignty over the territory.
Those who sought foreign interference in Hong Kong’s affairs or engaged in other acts that endangered national security could also be disqualified, the NPCSC said, without offering further details.
Critics labelled the measures a “patriot test”.
“The ruling from the central government has shown that they have given up one country, two systems completely,” said Wu Chi-wai, chairman of the Democratic party, referring to the model under which Hong Kong was permitted a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule.
Alongside Mr Kwok, the other disqualified legislators were Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwok and Kenneth Leung.
Just two of the 43 legislators that remain in the 70-member LegCo are not pro-Beijing.
“If observing the process, protecting systems and functions and fighting for democracy and human rights lead to the consequences of being disqualified, it would be my honour,” said Dennis Kwok.
China’s liaison office in Hong Kong, Beijing’s representative body in the city, said being “patriotic” and “loving Hong Kong and China” were necessary requirements for any politician in the territory.
Dixon Sing, a political science professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the decision would further dent confidence in Beijing’s promise that the city would continue to enjoy civil freedoms after the handover.
“[It will also] undermine the credibility of the legislature in the eyes of the locals and the international community,” he said.
The oustings follow the disqualifications of six lawmakers-elect by a Hong Kong court during the 2016 election.
On that occasion, the NPCSC reinterpreted the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, to enable the disqualification of members who did not “sincerely believe in and strictly abide by” their oath of allegiance to China.