Hong Kong stripped four pro-democracy lawmakers of their seats Wednesday, immediately after China gave the city the power to disqualify politicians deemed a threat to national security.
The ousting comes after 19 pro-democracy lawmakers in the semi-autonomous city’s legislature threatened Monday to resign “en masse” if their colleagues were disqualified.
Hong Kong’s government said the four would “lose their qualification as legislators immediately”.
The statement came after The National People’s Congress Standing Committee — one of China’s top lawmaking committees — ruled that Hong Kong could remove any legislator deemed a threat to national security without going through the courts.
The disqualifications are the latest blow to the city’s beleaguered democracy movement, which has been under sustained attack since China imposed a sweeping national security law, including arrests for social media posts and activists fleeing overseas.
It was imposed in June to quell months of huge and often violent protests in the finance hub.
China’s leaders have described it as a “sword” hanging over the head of their critics.
“If observing due process, protecting systems and functions and fighting for democracy and human rights would lead to the consequences of being disqualified, it would be my honor,” Dennis Kwok, one of the disqualified lawmakers, told reporters Wednesday.
The four had initially been banned from running in the semi-autonomous city’s legislative elections, which were scheduled to be held September 6, after calling on the US to impose sanctions on Hong Kong officials.
Those elections were postponed, with authorities blaming the coronavirus.
Hong Kong’s legislature passes the territory’s laws, but only half of its 70 members are directly elected — and a complex appointment system ensures the city’s pro-Beijing establishment is all but guaranteed a handsome majority.
Scuffles and protests routinely break out, with the pro-democracy minority often resorting to filibustering and other tactics to try to halt bills they oppose.
A mass resignation would leave the legislature composed almost entirely of those toeing Beijing’s line.
Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam said the disqualifications were “constitutional, legal, reasonable and necessary”.
The inability of Hong Kongers to elect their leaders and lawmakers has been at the heart of swelling opposition to Beijing’s rule.
More than 10,000 people were arrested during the democracy protests, and the courts are now filled with trials — many of them involving opposition lawmakers and prominent activists.
Critics say the law’s broadly worded provisions are a hammer blow to the flickering freedoms that China promised Hong Kong could keep after the end of British colonial rule in 1997.