Opposition district councillors in Hong Kong are bracing for the prospect of their own disqualifications after a pro-establishment heavyweight and a top government adviser on Thursday warned that the red line laid down by Beijing a day ago and used to unseat four lawmakers could also apply to them.
The unanimous resolution – stating that lawmakers will lose their Legislative Council seats immediately if they are deemed to have engaged in a range of acts, from endangering national security to dishonouring their pledge of allegiance – was handed down on Wednesday by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), China’s top legislative body.
Shortly after the resolution’s release – which triggered the immediate ousting of the four opposition lawmakers and the subsequent resignations of 15 others in protest – Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said her government would look into ways to “enhance the local law” to bring it in line with Beijing’s requirements.
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Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole delegate to the NPCSC, suggested on Thursday that any future amendments should also rein in the city’s councillors at the district level.
“When district councillors make similar pledges in the future, how to handle their breach of their pledges should be studied,” he said.
Tam’s assertion could threaten the one area where the opposition had enjoyed major success in recent years, with the camp winning an unprecedented 392 of 452 district council seats in last year’s elections on the back of widespread disillusionment with the government after months of protests.
Neither the resolution Beijing issued on Wednesday nor the legal provision it touched on made any mentioning of district councillors. The provision, Article 104 of the Basic Law, concerns only the oaths taken by the Chief Executive, principal officials, legislators, judges and members of the Executive Council, the government’s top advisory body.
District councillors do not need to take an oath before they assume office, though as candidates, they are given a declaration form stating that they will uphold the Basic Law and pledging allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
A year ago, prominent activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung was the only candidate banned from running in the district council polls because a returning officer was unconvinced he made the declaration genuinely.
Some legal experts on Thursday said they believed the government’s decision to review the local laws may well be triggered by its desire to target district councillors – and even civil servants – although others dismissed the assertion, saying the move was likely just for convenience’s sake.
Others pointed to the explanation given by Lam on Wednesday that the city lacked a law dealing with those who committed an act contrary to their oath after being sworn in.
“That is what has to be dealt with in the future when we smoothen or enhance the local legislation,” she said at the time, stopping short of mentioning district councillors.
But if Tam’s suggestion made headway, it would deal a further blow to Hong Kong’s embattled opposition camp, which now has no members in the legislature, but does currently control all but one of the city’s district councils after its stunning gains last year.
Senior Counsel Ronny Tong Ka-wah, an adviser on Lam’s de facto cabinet, the Executive Council, said although the resolution addressed only legislators, it defined what upholding the Basic Law should mean, and should therefore also apply to district councillors and even civil servants.
But, he added, there was currently no mechanism under Hong Kong law for unseating an elected district councillor.
Principal law lecturer Eric Cheung Tat-ming, of the University of Hong Kong, said that might well be one of the reasons the government was reviewing its existing legislation. “It is to set up that mechanism for disqualification,” he said.
His colleague, Simon Young Ngai-man, a constitutional law specialist, said even with Beijing’s resolution, the city still lacked a legal mechanism for disqualifying sitting legislators without the Legco president first having to put a censuring motion to a vote. The Basic Law stipulates that such a motion requires a two-thirds majority to unseat a lawmaker.
As such, he argued, the disqualification of the four was likely to be a one-off before the city set up its own mechanism. Young also disagreed with Lam’s remark on Wednesday that the resolution had not given her a new power, noting that the four were disqualified under a mechanism that did not previously exist.
“There now needs to be local legal machinery to enable disqualification on the four grounds listed in the [resolution] for future legislators,” he said, adding that clearer procedures should be outlined, and those who were aggrieved should be allowed to take the matter to court.
“Beyond the legislature, they may extend this machinery to the civil service,” he said.
But Leung Chau-ting, the chairperson of the Federation of Civil Service Union, insisted that any changes were unlikely to affect public employees.
If a civil servant were to refuse to sign a mandatory pledge of allegiance, he said, they would probably leave, and the matter would be treated as a labour dispute, with the government expected to pay compensation for changing the contractual agreement.
“In that case, the government should reveal its proposal as soon as possible,” he said.
Meanwhile, Tong, the Exco member, argued that Beijing’s move was legal because the decision had not amended what the Basic Law already said, but rather came as a supplement.
He said the government probably intended to change the law because there were too many provisions concerning the pledge of allegiance of various office holders scattered across different ordinances.
The government might be planning to consolidate the provisions into one law, which is a common practice, he said.
Lester Shum, a Tsuen Wan district councillor for Hoi Bun, said he believed the chances of the government turning its attention to the local councils was high.
“It seems that in the past three years … the government just kept putting more and more pressure,” he said, citing as examples Wednesday’s disqualifications and the sweeping national security Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June.
Indeed, Shum may be particularly vulnerable. When the four lawmakers – Civic Party’s Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, Kwok Ka-ki and Dennis Kwok, along with Kenneth Leung of the Professionals Guild – were disqualified on Wednesday, the government noted that they had already been banned from running in the now-postponed Legco elections, originally slated for September.
Shum was also among the 12 politicians who had their candidacies invalidated at the time, as was Tiffany Yuen Ka-wai, the Southern District councillor for Tin Wan.
“I have already told the people in my neighbourhood that I am not sure how much longer I will be allowed to serve,” she said.
A spokesman for the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau offered few details as to the bureau’s plans on Thursday, saying only that it had been reviewing local legislation since Beijing handed down an interpretation of the Basic Law in 2016 requiring oaths of office to be taken in a “sincere and solemn” manner.
Among the various legal areas that may need to be “straightened out”, he added, were the oath-taking format and requirements, as well as the “mechanism for handling breach of oath” and its consequences.
A draft of the legislative proposals, he said, would be put before Legco “as soon as possible”.