Beijing’s directive, bypassing Hong Kong’s courts and political structures, underlined China’s tightening stranglehold on the financial center, whose autonomy it has curbed sharply this year despite a previous promise to allow the city to largely run its own affairs until 2047.
Beijing’s intervention and the timing of the decision could also signal to President-elect Joe Biden that the ruling Communist Party has no intention of easing up on its crackdown on Hong Kong, a subject of bitter dispute between the United States and China.
The four lawmakers — among them the accountant Kenneth Leung and lawyer Alvin Yeung, who leads a liberal, pro-democracy party — were barred from recontesting legislative elections originally scheduled for September but which the government postponed for a year, citing the coronavirus.
The sitting lawmakers were initially told they could continue serving their terms until the election. But on Wednesday, Beijing passed a resolution saying any lawmakers who support Hong Kong’s independence, or are otherwise deemed unpatriotic for misdeeds such as petitioning foreign powers to intervene in the city’s affairs, must be disqualified.
Pro-democracy lawmakers had threatened to resign en masse if that happened. In an interview, Wu Chi-wai, the leader of the Democratic Party, said those plans to resign have not changed, and that more details would be provided later Wednesday.
In a news conference, the four expressed sadness and dismay, and said they had fought for the democratic principles enshrined in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution and laws.
“We are all professional people, giving up a lot of our time and resources, because we want to fight for justice and the core values of Hong Kong,” said Leung, who has represented the accountancy sector in the legislature for the past eight years. In a previous interview with The Post, Leung pushed back against the government’s allegations that he had supported U.S. sanctions against Hong Kong officials.
Dennis Kwok, another lawmaker ousted on Wednesday, had drawn China’s ire for using filibuster rules to stall the passage of laws pushed by Beijing — including one, since passed, that criminalized mockery of the national anthem.
Kwok told the same news conference Wednesday that he had simply been exercising his power under existing rules. “If observing due process and protecting systems and functions and fighting for democracy and human rights will lead to the consequences of being disqualified, it will be my honor,” he said.
The resolution from Beijing marks the second time this year that the central government has directly intervened in a consequential political decision in Hong Kong. Under the terms of the 1997 handover, Hong Kong was meant to have a “high degree of autonomy” over everything but foreign affairs and defense.
In late June, Beijing passed a new national security law by fiat, similarly bypassing all of Hong Kong’s political structures. The law was chilling for the city’s democracy movement for both its content — punishing broadly worded crimes like “sedition” and “subversion of state power” with life in prison — and the way in which it was enacted.
Lam told reporters Wednesday it was “logical” that one who is “not fit to run for election is not fit to be a lawmaker.” The issue of whether to let the four stay on, she added, was one that the Hong Kong government “could not decide on” and so her government sought advice from Beijing.
China’s liaison office in Hong Kong added in a statement that a fundamental requirement of running for office in Hong Kong was to be “patriotic” and to love Hong Kong and China. Beijing’s decision, it added, is in accordance with Hong Kong’s mini-constitution — known as the Basic Law — and the new national security law.
Chinese analysts expect tensions between the United States and China to persist under a Biden administration. Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris was among the sponsors of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which paved the way for sanctions. Harris has also spoken out in support of the pro-democracy movement in the city.