China to Attack Remaining Hong Kong Democratic Institutions

District councilors, NGOs, trade unions in the crosshairs

The Hong Kong government is planning to remove elements deemed disloyal to Beijing from the city’s district councils, which humiliated the government with an overwhelming opposition 388-105 victory in November 2019 elections on record turnout. NGOs and trade unions are also to be eviscerated as part of Beijing’s strategy to weaken support for the protest movement and foster compliance with the National Security Law, a well-informed source has told Asia Sentinel.

China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress, imposed the National Security Law in Hong Kong in defiance of overwhelming public sentiment in a successful attempt to throttle protests that had rocked the city since the middle of 2019. The law has been condemned internationally by the governments of the UK and US and many others for eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy which Beijing promised to last till 2047.

In a matter of weeks, there will be discussions within the Legislative Council, the city’s consultative body, on introducing legislation to require district councilors to take an oath to uphold the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s mini-constitution) and swear allegiance to Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region of China, sources in Hong Kong and mainland China say. The passage of the new law is a foregone conclusion, because all remaining opposition lawmakers resigned from the LegCo on November 11 in protest against the disqualification of four pro-democracy legislators.

“There is a strategic purpose behind this,” said a foreign risk consultant who declined to be named. If district councilors refuse to take the oath or behave disrespectfully during the oath-swearing ceremony, they face disqualification, the risk consultant explained. Those objecting face the fate of six people who were disqualified from the LegCo in 2016 and 2017 after they shouted slogans or made extraneous statements during the oath-taking ceremony. The six disqualified LegCo members include opposition activists Sixtus “Baggio” Leung, Nathan Law and “Long Hair Leung Kwok-hung.”

Article 104 of the Basic Law requires LegCo members to swear to uphold the Basic Law and allegiance to Hong Kong. Under the National Security Law, which took effect on June 30, the oath-taking obligation was extended to all 180,000 civil servants. On November 24, the Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip Tak-kuen warned civil servants their promotion prospects might suffer if they refuse to take the oath.

District councilors are not obliged to take the oath. But after the oath-taking requirement comes into effect, those who refuse or behave disrespectfully during the oath-taking ceremony will be replaced by the Hong Kong government with pro-Beijing district councilors, the risk consultant said. “This will remove the last vestige of democracy in Hong Kong.”

The Chinese government disastrously underestimated sentiment in the 2019 district elections, with anti-Beijing district councilors overwhelming pro-China candidates, leaving pro-democracy and pro-Hong Kong independence groups to triple their seats in their biggest election victory ever. Pro-Beijing forces backed by the central government have set out to erase that loss, and along with its representative government in the special administrative zone.

NGOs and trade unions next

Another target of the Hong Kong government will be NGOs, as the government plans to introduce requirements at some point for NGOs to be more pro-Beijing, the source said. Although he said he couldn’t elaborate on these requirements, the NGOs will be effectively told “you’re for us or against us. If you’re against us, the NGOs may lose financial support from the Hong Kong government or their license.” Some NGOs have been involved in supporting the protest movement in Hong Kong either overtly or covertly.

The plan to compel district councilors and NGOs to be more pro-China is one of the “compliance mechanisms” mentioned by Luo Huining, director of the Liaison Office, the official link between Hong Kong and the Chinese government. On December 4, Luo called on the Hong Kong government, judiciary and law enforcement to implement “mechanisms” to spur the broad Hong Kong citizenry to “voluntarily” comply with the National Security Law.

Luo said, “Only when Hong Kong is administered by patriots, Hong Kong can have stability and growth in the long term.”

In his Dec. 4 speech, Luo hinted Hong Kong’s rule of law may be further eroded when he said, “Some Hong Kongers only respect the unchanging state of Hong Kong’s legacy (colonial) legal system and ignore the fundamental changes that have occurred in Hong Kong’s system of government, this is the root of the unrest in Hong Kong in recent years.”

The risk consultant predicted, “The protestors will lose overt support from the civil service, NGOs and district councilors. There will be an erosion of support for the protest movement.”

Trade unions are expected to be another target for the Hong Kong government in the coming months, Asia Sentinel also indirectly learnt from sources in Hong Kong and mainland China.

“If trade unions are not deemed compliant, their members can be scrutinized. This will encourage people to leave unions and discourage people from joining unions. This is attacking the foundation of supporting the protest movement by going after civil society,” the risk consultant said.

All these measures will have an impact on Hong Kong society, said a British executive who declined to be named. “People are going to get more depressed. It will accelerate migration of Hong Kong people and expatriates. I don’t think it will be a tidal wave, but people are talking about it.”

The British executive, who has lived in Hong Kong for decades, plans to remain in the city for the time being. But he added, “If the opportunity arises, I’ll be more inclined to leave than stay.”

“After the enactment of the National Security Law, the Hong Kong government has become emboldened and cavalier in using the law to curtail people's freedom without realizing the wider repercussions of their actions,” said Frankie Leung, a former Hong Kong barrister who emigrated from Hong Kong to the US many years ago.

The risk consultant predicted, “This will drive the protest movement deeper underground and make it more covert.”

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