As the clock ticked down to midnight on Friday, Hong Kong lawmakers, according to decades-old tradition, were supposed to put aside political differences, gather in the legislative chamber and wave at the cameras of the assembled media as they brought their four-year terms to an end.
But there was no appetite for the ceremony this time around.
Instead, members of the opposition camp decided to take their own separate group picture. “It is to show us cutting ties with them,” said Claudia Mo Man-ching of the Council Front.
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After years of bitter finger-pointing which at times devolved into physical clashes as the city lurched from one crisis to another, the atmosphere in the legislature grew unprecedentedly hostile, according to lawmakers from across the political divide.
The Legislative Council’s sixth term got off to a poor start. All 70 members joined the session for the swearing-in ceremony in October 2016 but that would be one of the final ones where a full house assembled. The opposition soon suffered its first setback. Among the fresh faces were six localists who rode the momentum of the pro-democracy Occupy movement from two years before and had advocated either Hong Kong independence or self-determination.
The government for the first time mounted a legal challenge to unseat lawmakers – Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching of Youngspiration – after they shouted pro-independence slogans and insulted China during their oath-taking ceremonies that November.
Six lawmakers were eventually unseated over improper oath-taking antics, among them young activist Nathan Law Kwun-chung, who is now in self-imposed exile following Beijing’s imposition of the sweeping national security legislation in June.
“The disqualification was in essence a move to overturn the election results,” said Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai as he reviewed the past term. “It was just a prologue to a series of episodes which saw the government and its allies repeatedly using their powers to weaken the legislature’s ability to hold the authorities accountable.”
Wu was referring to the pro-establishment bloc’s successful bid to amend the Legco rule book to limit filibustering tactics in 2017, and the administration’s attempt to push through a controversial plan to set up a joint border checkpoint with mainland China in the heart of the city a year later.
Wu argued it was officials’ intransigent attitude that sparked the city’s worst political storm last year when it insisted on pushing ahead with a controversial, now-withdrawn extradition bill.
The bill, which laid out the framework for transferring suspects to the mainland, was met with massive opposition by residents, who took to the streets that June and launched what became the anti-government movement that brought the city to the edge of anarchy.
At the height of the scrutiny of the bill in May last year, the opposition bloc and government-friendly camp physically fought as they tried to seize control of the Bills Committee. The fracas forced the meeting to adjourn and left one lawmaker in hospital and at least three others claiming injuries.
The Legco complex was then stormed and vandalised by protesters on July 1 last year as the city marked the 22nd anniversary of its handover to Chinese rule. The anti-government movement pushed the administration to meet five key demands, including the withdrawal of the bill and the implementation of universal suffrage.
The months of violence prompted Beijing to introduce the national security law that targets acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Looking back, Legco president Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen described the past four years as a roller coaster. The number of times members were ordered to withdraw from the chamber due to grossly disorderly conduct totalled 97, more than the previous term’s 75, while a record 25 members were involved, compared with seven before.
“The relation between executive and legislative branches had a good start when [Chief Executive] Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor took office,” he said. “She accepted our suggestion to come for a monthly question and answer session and did a great job following up the issues. But, it just went sour suddenly.”
But Leung admitted the administration had to shoulder some responsibility. “If the executive branch can lobby support from lawmakers and the public for their bills with clearer explanations, of course the job of the Legco president could be much easier,” he said. The only way out of the current predicament was for different parties and the government to work together for the common good of the people, he said.
Ideally lawmakers across the political divide could show mutual respect, but Leung understood “different people have different roles on the political stage”.
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said Legco had been “politicised” over the past two years, making it difficult for Lam to maintain rational communication with the chamber.
Pointing to how the chief executive was unable to announce her policy address in October last year amid disruption by the opposition, Cheung criticised pan-democrats for “exhausting political means to override the welfare of citizens”.
Veteran pro-establishment lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin, who ended his third term, lamented that courtesy between the two camps, and the relationship between the legislative and executive branch, had sunk to its lowest point yet.
Although the camp amended the rule book in 2017, they ended up ditching the strictest proposal and left some room for the opposition to manoeuvre. In April, Beijing accused pan-democratic lawmakers of paralysing the legislature by delaying the election of the House Committee chair for more than half a year, preventing new laws from being passed, including the national anthem bill.
The number of quorum calls made by members totalled 501 – consuming 87 hours or 5 per cent of the total meeting time. That compares with last term’s 1,490 consuming more than 223 hours.
The rules retained from the British colonial era were for gentlemen … what we are facing now are … almost ruffians
Wong Kwok-kin, pro-establishment lawmaker
“The rules retained from the British colonial era were for gentlemen on the basis of their respect to the legislature,” Wong said. “But what we are facing now are not only villains, but almost ruffians.”
Wong admitted the pro-establishment camp had its own problems. If members were better united and attended more sessions, pan-democrats would not have had so much room to delay proceeding by ringing the quorum bell.
A total of 14 meetings were adjourned due to the lack of a quorum, less than the previous term’s 18, but due to amendments made to the rule book that allowed the president to resume proceedings after adjournment, only 73 meeting hours were lost, against 229 previously.
Opposition lawmaker Kenneth Leung, representing the accounting industry, also pointed to a change in the relationship between the executive and legislative branches over the past term.
Months after Lam succeeded her unpopular predecessor Leung Chun-ying as city leader in 2017, the lawmaker and his colleagues from the moderate-leaning Professionals Guild dined with her in Government House where they discussed policy issues. But he no longer saw room for such dialogue with the administration following the extradition bill battle.
The opposition is now setting its sights on Legco elections slated for September, hoping to capture its first majority. In an attempt to narrow down its field of candidates, the camp held a primary last weekend in which more than 610,000 residents cast ballots, according to organisers. The exercise was denounced by Beijing and the administration as possibly illegal, which backers dismissed, but results indicate young localists seeking a more confrontational approach in the chamber outperformed candidates from traditional pan-democratic parties.
Wong, who will not seek re-election, predicts a more paralysed legislature in the coming four years.
“The chamber is just a microcosm of society, with lawmakers reflecting the diverse voice of Hongkongers,” Wong said. “Changes will only take place when society changes.”
Wu said the government had only itself to blame. “The legislature is supposed to be a place to resolve social conflicts,” he said. “It is only a natural development if the government and its allies exhaust their powers … and dismiss every dissenting voice.”
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This article Bickering, scuffling and deadlock: Hong Kong’s legislature brings stormy term to a close first appeared on South China Morning Post