Protests in streets of Hong Kong where protesters hold umbrellas
Global Affairs

As Hong Kong’s legislators resign en masse, is there any hope left for the city’s democracy?

When the Chinese parliament passed a measure on 11 November 2020 that banned anyone ‘unpatriotic’ from sitting in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, four pro-democracy members were immediately disqualified, triggering the remaining pro-democracy legislators to resign en masse. The new rule permitted the city’s government to expel at their discretion any members that appeared to support Hong Kong’s independence, to collude with foreign forces, or to threaten national security. For anyone who has been following the political developments in Hong Kong, these words sound hauntingly similar to the controversial National Security Law that was passed earlier this year on 30 June.

However, the storm began brewing long before the summer of this year. Hong Kong was a British colony until it was handed back to China in 1997, at which point the City was promised its way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years under a ‘one country two systems’ framework. In 2003, over half a million citizens protested when the government attempted to pass national security laws of a similar nature to those implemented this year, before ultimately giving up. The storm simmered down briefly, until tensions started rising again in 2014 with the ‘Umbrella Revolution’, a large-scale protest against what citizens viewed to be a rolling-back of promised universal suffrage. The issue at the heart of the 2014 protests was the Chinese government allowing citizens to vote for their Chief Executive in an upcoming election, but only from a list of pre-screened candidates. Protesters were concerned that this would not be a truly democratic choice as anybody who disagreed with the central Beijing government would not be on the list. Although there was no definite end to the protests, it did not continue as the government refused to make any concessions.

Given this unresolved conflict, it is perhaps unsurprising that more large-scale civil disobedience swept across Hong Kong in March 2019 when the government tried to pass an Extradition Bill that would allow for criminal suspects to be tried in mainland China. It was met with vehement reaction, with concerns about the fairness and legality of the justice system in China especially given the country’s shaky human rights record. Although there were some minor concessions made in May 2019, it was not seen as enough and the conflict continued and descended into violence as tear gas and rubber bullets were fired in one of the city’s largest and most dangerous protests in decades. The remit of the protesters expanded beyond the proposed Extradition Bill, as frustration and anger against Beijing’s increasing squeeze on the City’s freedom found an outlet. Clashes between protesters and police forces became increasingly frequent, and protests persisted until the coronavirus pandemic took hold and forced the momentum to grind to a halt.

When the city’s lockdown was lifted, protesting resumed, although on a much lesser scale, but any remnants of public defiance left was quickly quelled as China passed its sweeping National Security Law at the end of June 2020. The legislation criminalised secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, but it was drafted in such vague terms and with a wide jurisdictional reach that almost anyone and everyone who had any connection with China could be liable under it. One of the first arrests made under this law was against a man who carried a pro-independence flag, confirming the fear of critics that any dissident voices would be quashed under the law.It is this same controversial National Security Law that the four disqualified legislators were accused of breaching, and thereby ousted from their positions for. In a protest against this move, the 15 other pro-democracy legislators resigned from their positions. While the central Chinese government has criticised the move, calling it a “stubborn confrontation” and a “blatant challenge to the power of the central government”, one cannot help but wonder if that is something to be critical about in light of the encroachment upon Hong Kong’s autonomy. With nobody left to represent a pro-democracy viewpoint in the city’s legislative organ, and the government demonstrating a willingness to stringently impose the draconian National Security Law, it’s truly difficult to determine if there is any hope left for Hong Kong to enjoy the freedom it yearns after.

Image source: Wikimedia

Athena Kam

Athena is studying Law at Pembroke College, and is the current Secretary of the Oxford Bar Society. Outside of her degree, she is a self-proclaimed coffee snob and a keen musician, enjoying keyboard bashing (as a pianist) and hitting things with sticks (as a percussionist).