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With Opposition Lawmakers Exiting the Legislature, What Is the Future of Hong Kong’s Democracy Movement?

14 minute read

When Hong Kong’s new political headquarters was unveiled in 2011, the architects said the structure represented the government’s always open door. But for many in the city, the sweeping harborfront complex is instead the focal point of a system they say disenfranchises them by design.

That’s unlikely to change in the near future. Though the city’s democracy campaigners have spent over three decades trying to cleave greater political concessions from Beijing, they have not succeeded. Their fight now looks to be in freefall, with each passing week bringing a new nadir.

The latest came on Nov. 11 when Beijing mandated the expulsion of lawmakers who endanger national security. Four pro-democracy legislators were accused and ousted. In protest, the rest of the opposition camp resigned, paving the way for what Beijing calls “patriots governing Hong Kong.” At this point, it’s unclear how, when or even if the opposition can stage a comeback.

Ultimately, critics see the move as cementing Beijing’s control over the legislature, which it may remodel in its own system’s image.

“It seems they just want to get rid of all the opposition voices,” says Dennis Kwok, one of the disqualified legislators. “What they want is more like [China’s] National People’s Congress—a rubber stamper.”

The idea has deepened anxieties about the semi-autonomous enclave’s future, and how rapidly it is becoming like any other Chinese city.

While it’s easy to frame the struggle between autonomy and autocratic control as good versus evil, that would be too storybook simple. Not everyone is opposed to the idea of convergence with the world’s No. 2 economy and ascendant superpower. But those who are feel the sharp loss of their home and all that makes it special.

At the Legislative Council, known locally as LegCo, heated, noisy debates in recent years have served as an indicator of just how separate Hong Kong has remained since returning to China in 1997. On the chamber floor, those who prioritized maintaining their freedoms and way of life openly clashed with lawmakers who wanted to bring the former British colony closer to Mainland China. Now, both sides agree, the latter have triumphed.

The lawmakers’ ouster furthers the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) bid to quell unrest in the territory after a long, hard year of protests. Chinese state media hailed the “long overdue” step toward “peace and prosperity.”

Read more: Meet the Young People at the Heart of Hong Kong’s Rebellion

But for the opposition, Beijing’s latest decree effectively shuts the last official avenue for dissent. In China’s most globalized metropolis, street demonstrations have evaporated amid coronavirus restrictions and fear of arrest. A once robust culture of social criticism has diminished under a sweeping national security law imposed this summer.

The crackdown has also dented Hong Kong’s reputation as “Asia’s World City,” a liberal mashup of East and West, and centered it in the spiraling U.S.-China showdown. While Washington has decried the expansion of one-party dictatorship, the Chinese government effectively says “Stay off my lawn.”

The four disqualified lawmakers hardly resemble the “terrorist” rioters lambasted in Communist Party screeds over the past year. Two are lawyers, one is a urologist and another an accountant. They are moderates and one even unabashedly describes himself as “rule follower.” But all four were previously barred from seeking re-election in a now postponed race, allegedly over their soliciting of foreign intervention, vowing to block the government’s budget and objecting to the national security law. According to the city’s leader, since they were found to be unfit candidates, they were also unfit to continue serving.

While they are not the first Hong Kong legislators to ever be disqualified, their unseating is unique in bypassing the courts.

“This opens the door for Beijing to disqualify more legislators at will and maybe arbitrarily in the future,” says Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Imagine that happening in the United States, Donald Trump disqualifying congresspeople at will. That would be ridiculous. It makes a mockery of the elections and people’s decision at the polling stations.”

What remains is a functionally undemocratic lawmaking body that has moved even further from Beijing’s decades-old agreement to let the city choose its own representatives.

“We have lost our voice in the system,” says Kwok.

Pan-democratic politician, Lam Cheuk-ting (C) is removed by security after throwing papers torn from the Legco rulebook during a scuffle between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing lawmakers at the House Committee's election of chairpersons, at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on May 18, 2020.ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

The Fight for Democracy in Hong Kong

The fight for a more democratic government has been contentious, bitter and mostly futile.

For a century and a half under British colonial rule, self-governance was largely a non-issue in this scrappy archipelago. Most of the Chinese Hong Kong residents, having fled from ideologues and revolutionaries, were deliberately anti-political and saw themselves as sojourners en route to better lives elsewhere.

Although political activism was discouraged, things began to slowly change in the second half of the last century when, for the first time, a majority of the population was locally born and began calling for a greater say in government. Their demands were deftly handled by the British by broadening participation in low-level district councils and municipal bodies. That broadly satisfied the tenement dwelling factory workers and upwardly mobile office clerks of an emerging boomtown, preoccupied as they were with livelihood issues.

It wasn’t until the 1984 pact between London and Beijing, governing the eventual retrocession of a now stunningly prosperous enclave to China, that the demand for genuine democracy began to grow. Many in the territory wanted to set up protections for their relatively liberal way of life before the Chinese Communist Party resumed sovereignty in 1997 and the vote was seen as the best way of doing so.

Today, however, Hongkongers remain unable to directly elect the city leader, who carries the corporate-sounding title of Chief Executive. And in a convoluted process that privileges special interest groups, the public votes for only half of the 70-seat legislature. (The other half is filled by so-called functional constituencies—professional bodies of financiers, industrialists and so on.) Despite consistently winning the majority of the popular vote, the democratic bloc has never taken control of the chamber.

“From start to finish, ever since the July 1, 1997 [handover] until today, the Chinese Communist Party has controlled the majority of LegCo,” Martin Lee, Hong Kong’s 82-year-old patrician “father of democracy,” said in a May 28 interview with TIME.

Lee, who helped draft Hong Kong’s mini-constitution—known as the Basic Law—and founded its first political party, was part of the city’s only legislature to have been fully chosen by the voting public. Created in the twilight of British rule and won in a landslide by the pro-democracy camp, it only lasted 21 months before being disbanded and replaced by a provisional body appointed by Beijing.

What Hong Kong wants, Lee said, is “to survive as promised as part of China: being masters of our own house, electing our own [leader] and all members of the legislature without interference from Beijing.”

He and others had expected the city would be a change-agent for China, a model that would seed the largest democracy on Earth. Instead, the convergence has largely slid the other way.

Denied full representation, Hongkongers have instead turned to protest as a pillar of politics. In 2003, half a million people marched in opposition to a national security bill. In 2012, then-teenaged activist Joshua Wong rallied students against a proposal for “patriotic education.”

Shortly afterwards, China’s leader Xi Jinping came to power, and according to Ma Ngok, the political scientist, the official attitude toward public opinion hardened. “This caused things to get more polarized and more radicalized, both on the streets and in the legislature,” he says.

Read more: Hong Kong Stands Up

While 2014’s protests for a say in electing the city’s leader ended in failure, the movement paved the way for a new cast of young activsts eager to more openly challenge Beijing. Some managed to gain election to LegCo but were disqualified after using their oath-taking ceremony as a platform to exhibit contempt for the Chinese government (some slipped in profanities, others refused to pledge allegiance to their distant capital, two used a wartime Japanese slur to refer to China). More invalidations, including barring candidates over their support for self-determination or independence, followed.

A growing sense of political impotence helped fuel the turnout last year when, by some estimates, two million people—a quarter of city’s population—flooded the streets against a bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China.

Read more: How Protests Turned Into a Battle for the Soul of Hong Kong

On July 1 last year, the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese sovereignty, the depth of the disillusionment became clear. Outfitted in hard hats and gas masks, a radical knot of protesters smashed their way into LegCo where they hoisted up a banner that read: “There are no rioters, only a tyrannical regime.”

“The frustration against the Legislative Council was really a reflection of how people are frustrated with the system as a whole,” says Brian Leung, an activist who famously gave a speech inside LegCo that night and now a PhD student at the University of Washington.

“People’s confidence in returning to China was based on the promise of democratization,” he tells TIME. But that promise was not fulfilled.

Hong Kong Protesters Storm Legislative Council Complex
Protesters are seen inside the lobby of Legco in Hong Kong, China. 1 July 2019 as thousands of protesters stormed the Legislative Council ComplexVernon Yuen/Nur Photo via Getty Images

The Future of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council

The extradition bill was eventually scrapped. But as the uprising hardened into a full-tilt rebellion against the Chinese Communist Party, with protesters beseeching Washington to intervene, Hong Kong discovered the cost of stepping over Beijing’s red line.

The crackdown came not via the much-feared bloody epilogue, but a legal diktat. Reviving the national security law that the local legislature had abandoned amid demonstrations in 2003, Beijing this time imposed it by fiat. In criminalizing acts of treason, subversion, sedition and secession with up to life in jail, the law granted authorities a broad remit to squash dissent.

“There’s absolutely no [room for opposition anymore]. That’s why many of us bet to have a new life and find ways to resist in another nation,” says a former frontline protester who goes by Malcom and is seeking political asylum in the U.K.

He and many other young protesters believe the fight over LegCo has long been a moot point. The opposition camp’s exit simply signaled “the official death,” he says.

But to lose an a boisterous legislature would be to lose one of the vestiges of Hong Kong’s autonomy.

“LegCo has never been a truly democratic institution, due to how the seats in it are divided up,” says Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor of history at University of California, Irvine and author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink. “But its existence was important as a sign [of] one thing that made Hong Kong different from any mainland city … the existence of public spaces where genuine debate could take place.”

For years, the city’s outnumbered pro-democracy bloc used their bully pulpit to challenge Beijing’s agenda. But they found themselves with dwindling room to maneuver. The Beijing-backed government and its political allies grew increasingly frustrated by the use of delay tactics like filibustering and quorum calls, which are common elsewhere in the world.

Then, in a desperate attempt to block a controversial law that criminalizes disrespect of China’s national anthem, the opposition took stalling to the next level. For six months, the pro-democracy camp obstructed the appointment of the chair to a key committee that controls which bills come up for debate. Chinese officials accused the opposition of going so far as to paralyze the chamber via “scorched-earth politics.” Pro-democracy lawmakers called it a last resort to stop “evil bills.”

The impasse exploded into scuffles during a rambunctious meeting in May. Eight pro-democracy lawmakers were later arrested, though the government dismissed a private prosecution against a pro-Beijing lawmaker accused of dragging a colleague to the ground.

In the end, increasingly theatrical, and sometimes violent, antics had diminishing returns. Spilling fertilizer onto the chamber carpet and throwing a rotten plant at LegCo’s president failed to stop the national anthem law and resulted in the arrest of three more legislators.

Additional filibustering this fall prompted a pro-Beijing lawmaker to ask whether those using the tactic, which she granted was allowed under LegCo rules, could be prosecuted under the national security law.

Backers of the oppositions’ expulsion say they only have themselves to blame.

“They have been opposing everything that has to do with the nation, whether it is national security, national education, national anthem,” pro-Beijing lawmaker Regina Ip told public broadcaster RTHK.

“Hong Kong being part of China, this sort of position is not viable,” she added.

Upon resigning on Nov. 12, pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo described a sense of relief.

“This council is so full of fakeness, so full of false sincerity,” she told reporters while dressed in all black and carrying a yellow umbrella symbolic of resistance. “They just want to pass anything the authorities want to be passed. So there’s just no point.”

Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo holds a yellow umbrella and her resignation letter at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on November 12, 2020, after the pro-democracy bloc said they would resign en masse in protest at the ousting of four of their colleagues by the city's pro-Beijing authorities.Photo by PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images

What Next for Hong Kong’s Opposition?

But the gambit may cost them. Whether the raucous pro-democracy camp has a route back to the chamber remains unclear.

Their role was already thrown into question back in July, when the government barred 12 pro-democracy candidates, including the four sitting lawmakers expelled this month, from standing in upcoming elections.

The move sparked international concern and accusations of a political purge, which were only exacerbated when the government postponed the September poll for a year, citing the coronavirus outbreak.

Now, Beijing’s latest edict revives the underlying questions about who governs Hong Kong, and how far the system will be untethered from popular will.

According to China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, patriotism is to be a prerequisite for holding office, which critics say is as an absurd litmus test.

“There is no objective standard to measure patriotism,” says Kenneth Leung, another of the disqualified lawmakers. “Is it measured by your thoughts or by your acts? If I severely criticize the government because I want it to do better am I patriotic or not?”

Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, says there’s no reason to think LegCo will be scrapped altogether.

“Don’t underestimate the value of a fig leaf,” he says. “It is good for autocrats to be able to claim that they are democrats. Having a legislature that is guaranteed to echo one’s ideas makes one feel good and look better.”

Some activists believe relief may lie with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s pledge to lead a “united front” against China (though many Hong Kong protesters had rooted for a Trump victory believing his bellicose rhetoric to be indicative of a harder line).

“The liberal world will have to come up with a comprehensive strategy to counter China’s growing authoritarianism,” says Leung, the protester turned Ph.D. student. This “might be another opportunity for us to mobilize and capture the world’s attention again.”

Yet even as the West articulates a much more hawkish approach to Beijing, international recriminations are having little sway. The Trump Administration has levied sanctions against 15 officials over their roles in curbing Hong Kong’s autonomy. Beijing and Hong Kong retaliated with the standard rhetorical salvos. (Acting Chief Executive Matthew Cheung last week decried the move as “barbaric” interference and vowed not to back down).

Either way, the Hong Kong legislature chugs on, but with many more empty seats. The LegCo president insists the council has all the opposition it needs within the pro-Beijing camp.

At the first meeting with no opposition bloc last week, the session opened on time. Voting lasted just 28 minutes and eight motions—mostly related to parking spaces—passed. A single lawmaker voted “no.”

Additional reporting by Amy Gunia/Hong Kong

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Write to Laignee Barron / Hong Kong at Laignee.Barron@time.com