In a blow to the pro-democracy movement, four opposition lawmakers were disqualified from Hong Kong’s parliament Friday over charges that they did not take their swearing-in oaths seriously.
The decision by Hong Kong’s High Court to disqualify the four fuels fears that China’s communist government in Beijing is increasingly curtailing the autonomy and political freedom the former British colony was promised when it was handed over to China in 1997.
Nathan Law, Leung Kwok-hung, Lau Siu-lai and Edward Yiu were sworn in as lawmakers in October following city-wide elections, but modified their oaths and were challenged in a lawsuit by Hong Kong’s Beijing-friendly government.
The suit claimed they didn’t take the oath “sincerely,” as required by law and turned the procedure into a “political tool.”
Long-time activist Leung, also known as “Long Hair,” took his oath while holding up a yellow umbrella, the symbol of the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement that drew more than 1 million protesters, many of them occupying central Hong Kong streets for 79 days.
Law, one of the Umbrella Movement’s student leaders, quoted revered Indian independence leader and pacifist Mahatma Gandhi before taking his oath, while Lau read her oath at a very slow pace, with long pauses between each word. Yiu added a line, saying he would “fight for genuine universal suffrage.”
Friday’s ruling was based upon an unprecedented interpretation of Hong Kong law handed down by Beijing in November. It stated that oath-takers must “accurately, completely and solemnly” read out the part of the oath that swears allegiance to Beijing.
Two other legislators, Yau Wai-ching and Baggio ‘Sixtus’ Leung, were prevented from taking office in November for changing the texts of their oaths to declare allegiance to the “Hong Kong nation.” The two are advocates for Hong Kong’s complete independence from China.
The lawmakers’ disqualification dramatically shifts the balance of power in the city’s legislature, as pro-democracy politicians will lose a slim majority that allowed them to block bills by the pro-Beijing factions.
“[The court ruling] will declaw and decimate the opposition bloc,” said Jason Y. Ng, a Hong Kong lawyer, author and social activist.
Ng added that the ruling sets a precedent for a government widely seen as Beijing loyalists to disqualify other opposition lawmakers.
“The government is now emboldened and won’t stop with these four,” said Ng. “They will go after other thorns in their side. That will only push the opposition back onto the streets.”
Demosisto, Nathan Law’s political party, said in a statement that the disqualification meant that “more than 180,000 voters had their voices silenced in the legislative body.”
“We implore Hong Kong citizens to acknowledge the significance of this judgment and mobilize to prevent further intervention and political persecution against other pro-democracy legislators,” the statement continued.
The decision comes two weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first official visit to Hong Kong to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover from Britain, and used the occasion to take a hard line against pro-democracy activists who want more freedom. Xi issued a stern warning that the communist government would not tolerate any challenge to its authority.
Actions such as Friday’s court ruling will only continue to drive a greater wedge between Hong Kong and Beijing for many citizens, experts say.
“Most Hong Kong people will take this as the failure of the ‘one country, two systems’ policy and Hong Kong will become increasingly polarized and difficult to govern,” said Cheung Chor-yung, assistant head of the department of public policy at City University of Hong Kong.
After 2014’s massive street protests failed to extract any concessions from Beijing, Hong Kong activists such as Law and Leung turned to electoral politics to try to influence change from inside the system.
The ruling may instead spark a new, and possibly more extreme, wave of street protests, said Cheung.
“It is likely that Hong Kong politics will turn increasingly radical and violent, with more resistance and anti-government movements being carried out outside the formal institutions,” he said.
Article originally appeared in USA Today on 14 July 2017