Danger to Democracy Increases in Hong Kong

The Hong Kong government is making an all-out effort to decimate the ranks of pro-democracy legislators. Having already succeeded through the courts in ousting two on grounds that they made a mockery of the oath taking at the start of the first session of the new legislature they are now gunning for four more.

These actions will probably not all succeed, but it will need only one for pro-democracy legislators to lose their majority among the directly elected members who comprise half of the legislature. (The other half consist of narrowly based so-called “functional constituencies,” mostly business groups, among whom the pro-government members are a large majority.)

The loss of the first two legislators, both very young people who gave no thought to the possible consequences of making a publicity stunt out of the oath-taking, was little surprise. Most likely they would have ruled out of the legislature even if Beijing hadn’t intervened with its own ruling before the local courts had a chance to make their own judgment.

There will eventually be by-elections to fill the vacancies created and there is a reasonable chance that a mainstream pro-democracy candidates will win. But that may not be enough as meanwhile the government through its Justice department has launched actions to get four more legislators thrown out for what it claims were irregularities in their oath-taking, which should also cause them to be disbarred.

One of the four may be especially vulnerable having foolishly commented on Facebook that the manner in which she took the oath of loyalty to Hong Kong as part of the PRC was to show it was not sincere.

Another of the four under siege is veteran radical Leung Kwok-hung, better known as Long Hair because of his appearance. He merely took the oath holding a yellow umbrella, symbol of the pro-democracy movement.

That is unlikely to be enough to get Leung expelled but meanwhile the government has taken a leaf out of the Singapore book of harassment of opposition politicians. He faces a charge relating to his book-keeping of campaign contributions. And, perhaps more seriously, he faces a damages claim from a pro-government local newspaper for disrupting a school debate it sponsored. The damage claim itself is out of all proportion to the event, but the costs involved could well bankrupt Leung. He would then be required to resign his seat.

The pro-democracy camp also faces the possibility that two seats left vacant by legal actions may be in the same constituency. Given the way the electoral system of multi-member constituencies works, it would be impossible for them to win both seats if two were up for grabs in one constituency.

The timing of how these various issues play out is crucial. Even if the pro-democracy camp eventually loses only a single seat, there may be period when it lacks two or more legislators. That would enable the government to push through procedural changes which would devalue the role of the directly elected legislators and their ability to scrutinize government.

The hard line taken by the Hong Kong government reflects not merely the authoritarian instincts of chief executive C.Y. Leung. It also appears an attempt to persuade Beijing that it should back him for a second term, despite his evident unpopularity, because of his strong defense of national unity and his attacks on Hong Kong localists.

Overconfidence among some of the pro-democracy camp, the young localists in particular after their triumphs in the September election, has come back to haunt them. And the government is using every lever it can find to make a nonsense of democratic politics by launching cases against so many directly elected members while itself relying on the support of business group legislators several concerned mainly with feathering their own group nests rather than acting in the public interest.