Two months after tumultuous legislative elections, and two years after the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement paralyzed the city center, Hong Kong is in the throes of another great political crisis.
Last Monday, the Chinese government intervened in the territory’s political affairs in an unprecedented way. Brazenly exploiting a technicality, and to the extreme, it barred two young legislators-elect who advocate for greater freedoms for Hong Kong from taking their seats.
The night before, demonstrators had briefly turned the cramped area around Beijing’s Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong into a battleground reminiscent of the worst of the 2014 protests, replete with police batons and tear gas. They had anticipated the bomb that was about to go off: By interfering in a case against two lawmakers brought by the Hong Kong government before a local court, Beijing demonstrated with one single gesture that it was ready to quash any electoral outcomes in Hong Kong that displeased it, to subordinate Hong Kong’s legislature to its executive branch and to subdue its judiciary, which has a reputation for independent-mindedness.
Hong Kong voters breached a floodgate in September with the election for the local legislature, known as LegCo, and now Beijing wants to close it at all costs. A group of young candidates with separatist leanings won half a dozen seats in LegCo, having campaigned on platforms that went well beyond what protesters in the Umbrella Movement ever demanded — from rewriting the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution since 1997, in order to cement Hong Kong’s autonomy, to self-determination or even outright secession from China. Last week, the empire struck back.
Some might say this was preordained. For in the run-up to the September election, the Hong Kong government had already used highly improper pretexts to disqualify several of these activists. But others did run, and a half-dozen won.
Then, arguably overplaying their hands, Sixtus “Baggio” Leung and Yau Wai-ching, two rookie legislators-elect and avowed proponents of full independence, let out a couple of fighting words during their oath-taking ceremony before LegCo. Beijing promptly declared those statements utterly offensive, and and the hard-line leader of Hong Kong, C.Y. Leung (no relation), pounced.
C.Y. Leung is widely thought to be seeking Beijing’s endorsement to run for a second term as chief executive; his current tenure ends next spring. He and his justice secretary formally asked a Hong Kong Court to condemn the actions of Baggio Leung and Ms. Yau and to nullify their legislator-elect status. It was a high-profile act of executive overreach. But it may also have been a smart attempt to catch a political windfall — at least for an eager incumbent trying to position himself as Beijing’s henchman among potential candidates that include holdovers from British colonial times, populist talking-heads and capable senior administrators.
Sensing that the law alone might not sway the judges in the government’s favor, C.Y. Leung openly invited the nuclear option: The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress could simply hand down its own interpretation of the Basic Law. Last week, the committee did exactly that, declaring that Baggio Leung and Ms. Yau have broken the law, which opens the way for their seats eventually to be declared vacant.
It was the first time Beijing nullified the outcomes of democratic elections in Hong Kong, in blatant violation of the Basic Law. For many Hong Kong voters, especially younger ones, the move was firm proof that the Hong Kong government is now doing Beijing’s bidding, and is itself undermining Hong Kong’s rightful autonomy from the mainland.
C.Y. Leung has won big, or so it would seem. He certainly needs to bolster his position in the eyes of Beijing if he wants a second term: Opinion polls consistently indicate that among all likely candidates in the next election for chief executive, he is among the least popular. The separatist movement, like the Umbrella Movement, is a reaction not only to Beijing’s high-handed denial of genuine political reform in Hong Kong, but also to C.Y. Leung’s acerbic manner and in-your-face governance style.
Beijing faces a difficult choice. After taking a hard and exceptionally intrusive stance by banishing the two legislators from LegCo, it would be wise now to adopt a softer line — and try to depoliticize the atmosphere by giving the top job in Hong Kong to someone less alienating than C.Y. Leung. But how can Beijing show a loyal attack dog the door? Besides, what guarantee is there that the fires of separatism wouldn’t spread in a gentle wind?
Hong Kong has been in a state of political stagnation since 1997, interspersed with eruptions of outrage. In 2003, as many as half a million people marched against proposals to expand sedition laws and impose drastic curbs on existing freedoms, and brought down the government of the day. In 2014, tens of thousands of demonstrators occupied major traffic arteries for weeks to demand genuine political reform.
In both cases, the underlying issues — calls for respecting Hong Kong’s special autonomy — were never really addressed, let alone settled. Only the immediate conflicts were made to subside, and sometimes through outright repression. The same thing will happen again this time. And with every turn of the vise, the city, once known as the Pearl of the Orient, loses more of its sheen.
Yi-Zheng Lian, a political and economic commentator on Hong Kong and Asian affairs, is a contributing opinion writer.