A number of Hong Kong opposition district councillors have said they would rather resign than take an oath of allegiance, with some worried that even if they gave in to the new requirement, they could be asked to return public funds if their pledges were later deemed unconvincing.
While many of the 452 district councillors in the city said they would stay in office as they did not want to hand over their seats, at least four raised concerns over the drastic outcome if authorities eventually ruled their oaths invalid.
The new oath-taking requirement may pave the way for a mass disqualification of opposition members, while a source told the Post that all of the 19 district councillors among the 47 activists earlier charged with subversion under the national security law were likely to be unseated.
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Lam Chun, a Yuen Long district councillor who was earlier charged with rioting in connection with the Polytechnic University (PolyU) campus protests in 2019, told the Post that he had considered quitting, although he had not made up his mind.
“The government has the ultimate power to decide whether you will be disqualified, and that also affects the payments we have received since we assumed office, as they might ask you to recover the costs,” he said, adding that by resigning now and avoiding taking the oath, he might still have a chance to run for Legislative Council.
The draft oath-taking legislation – called the Public Offices (Candidacy and Taking Up Offices) (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2021 – seeks to extend the current requirement to make a loyalty pledge for government officials and lawmakers to include members of the 18 district councils.
Anyone deemed in breach of the oath will be ousted from their posts and barred from holding public office for five years. The government has said it expects to pass the bill by June at the earliest.
Apart from district councillors, it is understood that public officers – including people working in different statutory bodies such as the Hospital Authority and Monetary Authority – must also take the pledge. But the government is still weighing how broad to make the scope of the requirement, the source said.
Once the legislation is passed, district councillors would have to swear to uphold the Basic Law and pledge allegiance to the government. A list has been drawn up defining what does and does not constitute an act upholding the mini-constitution and bearing allegiance to the city as a special administrative region of China. District councillors’ past conduct will also be taken into account when assessing pledges.
Facing the possibility of disqualification, some councillors have publicly announced or disclosed to the Post they will quit instead.
Ho Chi-wang, a Central and Western district councillor, said he was “forced to give up his post”, as he had been working closely with Michael Pang Cheuk-kei, one of the 47 activists charged under the security law.
“It is highly likely that I will get disqualified even if I take the oath,” he said. “Not only would I have to bear the legal consequences, I might also get chased for past salaries. I would prefer not taking it given such a high risk of disqualification.”
Two other district councillors, social worker Yuen Ho-lun and Lee Ka-wai, have also decided against taking the oath, citing different reasons.
In a public statement, Lee said the draft legislation only aimed to restrict their freedom of speech.
“Once we take the oath, we will have to be very cautious in every word and deed,” Lee said. “This is in turn asking us to play the role of loyal opposition to avoid being disqualified.”
Yet, those who have decided to stay and take the vow also have their reasons. Islands District Council member Wong Chun-yeung said he would quit in February but recently changed his mind, as residents in his district hoped he could hold his seat to avoid it going to the pro-establishment camp.
Andy Yu Tak-po, one of the 24 district council members remaining in the Civic Party, was the first in his organisation to announce he would take the oath.
“I do not want to hand over my seat to pro-Beijing members for nothing,” he said. “There are also a lot of district affairs in discussion and I would like to continue serving the public.”
The Civic Party plans to discuss on Monday whether taking the oath will be a collective action or left up to individual members to decide.
For the Democractic Party, which holds 87 seats in the district councils, chairman Lo Kin-hei said it too had yet to choose whether taking the oath would be a personal or party decision. It plans to meet in early April to consult members on their positions.
The opposition camp swept 392 of the 452 district council seats in an unprecedented landslide in 2019, but since then, the relationship between the local-level bodies and the government has all but collapsed.
According to a count by the Post, some 70 elected opposition councillors, or 19 per cent of the bloc, have been arrested over offences such as police obstruction, illegal assembly, misconduct in public office or conspiracy to defraud in relation to expense claims for the now-postponed Legislative Council elections, as well as subversion under the national security law.
Constitutional affairs chief Erick Tsang Kwok-wai has already identified four district councillors – Lester Shum, Fergus Leung Fong-wai, Tiffany Yuen Ka-wai and Cheng Tat-hung – who will be unseated once the proposed legislation passed. They were earlier banned from running in the Legco elections, which were originally slated for September but postponed by at least a year, with the government citing the coronavirus pandemic.
Neo Democrats founder Gary Fan Kwok-wai resigned on March 16 as a Sai Kung district councillor – a post which he held for more than 20 years – as he is currently in prison awaiting trial under the national security law. The government on Friday gazetted the vacant elected seat.
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