Hong Kong’s Localists Are Playing Right into China’s Hands
By Emily Lim
On the evening of November 6th, 2016, between eight and thirteen thousand protestors rallied in the streets of Hong Kong to protest the rumor that Beijing’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) might pass down an interpretation related to Hong Kong’s Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution.
Following the September 2016 Hong Kong Legislative Council (Legco) elections, the opposition pro-democratic camp maintained its vital veto power against the pro-Beijing camp. Multiple young, pro-independence candidates known as Localists also defeated veteran politicians in shock results.
Two of these Localists, Youngspiration’s Yau Wai-ching and Baggio Leung Chung-hang, are at the heart of the controversy that sparked the protests. During the oath-swearing ceremony in which elected lawmakers formally become a part of Legco, Leung and Yau swore allegiance to the “Hong Kong nation” whilst wearing banners that read “Hong Kong is not China.” Leung crossed his fingers while taking the oath, and Yau pronounced China as “Chee-na,” using a term that is considered derogatory towards China.
Although Legco President Andrew Leung initially agreed to give the Localist duo a second chance at retaking the oath, Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying and Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen have taken the two to court. A few days later, rumors flew that the NPCSC was discussing handing down an interpretation relating to Article 104 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which states that public officials in Hong Kong must “swear allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.”
One day after the mass protests, the NPCSC unanimously voted to pass The NPCSC’s interpretation of the Basic Law Article 104 of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. In its interpretation, the NPCSC ruled that public officials must bear “allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China,” in an oath taken “sincerely and solemnly.” Any failure to do so would disqualify oath takers from assuming public office. In passing down its interpretation, the NPCSC effectively barred not just the two lawmakers from taking office, but have also called into question the validity of the rights of other advocates of self-determination currently in Legco.
The fact that the Chief Executive is taking personal action to bar two opposition candidates from taking office demonstrates a clear overreach of power by the executive branch. Worse still, the NPCSC interpretation is a clear breach of Hong Kong’s political authority and judicial independence as set out by the “one country, two systems” agreement.
While it is true that under Article 158 (1) of the Basic Law, the NPCSC has the power to interpret Hong Kong’s Basic Law, Article 158 (2) and (3) clearly state that the NPCSC can only do so when it is approached by the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong. Furthermore, Article 26 gives Hong Kong permanent residents the right to vote and stand for elections. Both Article 26 and 104 are matters that fall within Hong Kong’s autonomy and any re-interpretation by Beijing would clearly undermine Hong Kong’s judicial independence, as well as the rights of Hong Kongers to be represented by their elected representatives, as set out by Article 26.
Yau Wai-ching has stubbornly expressed that she has no regrets about her conduct in the oath-swearing ceremony. However, she and Leung are playing right into Beijing’s hands. The political games going on in LegCo only serve to prove that democracy in Hong Kong is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. The unrest and deadlock within Legco give Beijing a better excuse to undermine Hong Kong’s political and judicial independence, as evidenced by this ruling.
As the Hong Kong people’s elected representatives, Yau and Leung need to work within the system in order to reform it. Rather than serving the people who voted for them, their resistance has only served to cause political gridlock as activity within LegCo grinds to a halt. The uncertainty over the legal proceedings, combined with the scuffles, silent protests, walk-outs, and arguments breaking out within the chamber, have made Legco and its lawmakers appear dysfunctional.
Should unrest continue in Hong Kong, Beijing will be able to further veil its violations of Hong Kong’s political autonomy as “benign” efforts to find a solution in a growingly polarized political scene. As fairly elected representatives in Hong Kong’s legislature, Yau and Leung carry the dreams of many Hong Kongers for greater self-determination. However, all of their support has gone to waste: their small acts of stubborn resistance did nothing but play right into the hands of Beijing. For one small moment of resistance, they forfeited any chance of reforming Legco from within, and with it the dreams of so many voters.