The pro-democracy opposition in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council resigned en masse last week, a powerful show of solidarity against Beijing’s latest intervention in the territory.
The protest came after the Chinese government passed a new law that would disqualify legislators for “unpatriotic” behavior — things like supporting Hong Kong’s independence or colluding with foreign powers. The Hong Kong government quickly expelled four members of the legislature under the new rule: Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwok, Kwok Ka-ki, and Kenneth Leung.
It was the latest attempt by the Chinese government to crush the pro-democracy opposition, this time directly within Hong Kong’s political structures. Which is why the remaining pro-democracy camp all walked out: better to stand in solidarity than to be picked off and disqualified, one by one.
The battle in the Legislative Council, or LegCo, comes just months after China imposed a stifling national security law that gave Beijing sweeping powers to crack down on dissent in Hong Kong under the broad categories of “secession, subversion, organization and perpetration of terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.”
That was a direct response to a year of massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which China saw as a threat to its power. Many inside and outside Hong Kong saw the national security law as a “death sentence” for “one country, two systems” — the principle that grants Hong Kong a degree of autonomy and democratic freedom until 2047.
Ultimately, the national security law achieved what Beijing wanted: accelerating China’s control of Hong Kong. The law, along with pandemic restrictions, has chilled the protests. And now China has taken yet another step, targeting lawmakers who oppose Beijing from their elected positions.
The pro-democracy camp had already been the minority in the LegCo; it could filibuster and delay but ultimately couldn’t block any legislation. Their absence now removes any doubt about what the Hong Kong government has become: another rubber stamp for Beijing’s agenda.
I spoke to Claudia Mo, one of the pro-democracy legislators who resigned in protest. She explained the decision, what this means for Hong Kong, and why she and others are still fighting against increasingly impossible odds.
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
I guess a good place to start would be the news that four pro-democracy legislators were ousted from the Legislative Council last week. This was under a new rule passed by Beijing targeting “unpatriotic” lawmakers, is that right?
The order, essentially, is the final, the very ultimate crackdown on Hong Kong’s opposition. It basically says if you are found “unpatriotic” — things that are disliked by the powers that be in Beijing — you’re out. You’re not allowed to stay within the power structure in Hong Kong. So that’s it. That’s the very final nail in the coffin of “one country, two systems.”
Beijing keeps reminding us that Hong Kong is part of China, and that it has sovereign power over Hong Kong. True, of course, yes. China has the sovereign power here; we always acknowledge that. But we thought we had “one country, two systems,” and we should have plenty of room, if not wiggle room, to mind our own business and retain Hong Kong’s identity.
You say that this is the “final nail in the coffin of the ‘one country, two systems.’” We said that a lot during the summer as China imposed its new national security law on Hong Kong. What makes this particular law even more dangerous to “one country, two systems”?
The national security law is all-encompassing. It applies to everyone, right? Just watch out. Whatever you do or say, guard your words, and so on. But this latest Beijing order doesn’t mention anything about the national security law.
I suppose Beijing didn’t want to use the national security law against the four legislators, because they didn’t want to make it too clear that the security law is some sort of political weapon. This time, they only stressed the fact that these people have disrespected the mother country’s authority and have worked against the power of the sovereign authorities, and thus should be chucked out. This is specifically targeted at Hong Kong’s political elections.
I see. Was there an expectation that China would make a move like this and, as you say, target politicians and the political structure?
The democracy camp in Hong Kong as a whole has been expecting something to this effect, so it’s not that we were completely caught by surprise. It’s not surprising, but it’s still shocking because of the extent of this order. It practically tells you that if you think for yourself, you just might not be allowed to run — to run — in any more political elections or hold any public office.
So what prompted you and the other pro-democracy lawmakers to resign en masse once four of your colleagues were ousted? What were those discussions like?
Naturally, we needed to show solidarity with the ousted four. But then, more importantly, we needed to launch, loud and clear, our protest against this final, ultimate political crackdown from Beijing. And so we decided that we had no other options.
Another technical point is there were 19 of us [pro-democracy lawmakers] in this legislature originally. By unseating the four of them, there are only 15 remaining. We simply didn’t have the numbers to block, to veto anything. We do not have the minimum number for the ultimate veto power for anything. So forget it. What’s the point of staying on when you could be there like sitting ducks waiting to be shot at?
When the four legislators were disqualified, did that also take away your ability to organize within the Legislative Council, like by filibustering or doing other sorts of legislative delay tactics?
We could still try to stall some undesirable policies or bills. But [we didn’t have the numbers] for vetoing any major bill, nor for any future attempt within the legislature to oust any of the remaining of us — 15 people remaining, we’ll shoot you one by one. And we have no defense whatsoever. So that’s the main thing, really.
I see. So why didn’t you and your colleagues feel it was worth it to try to protest from within?
We were going to be picked out. That’s obvious. So solidarity is another consideration. Either we do it or we don’t, together.
Was that nerve-racking to take that step — and [was there] doubt or question about it in the lead-up to the mass resignation?
No. I have to say, personally speaking, I don’t belong to any political party. I’ve been functioning as an independent, so there’s nothing nerve-racking or even sad about it.
You see, what’s been happening in Hong Kong is our democracy call has been getting louder and louder, and Beijing’s been dreading it. We were supposed to have our Legislative Council election back in September, but the government took advantage of coronavirus restrictions and the fear and panic and whatnot to postpone it for one full year.
They said the legislative term would be extended by one full year, until September of next year. When they extended legislature, we thought about whether all the [pro-democracy lawmakers] should go back, myself included. Technically, you would be effectively accepting an appointment by Beijing, because your term is supposed to have finished already.
But then we had all these other considerations, including that we must retain ourselves as the voice of the people. Most of us were popularly elected. We need the resources, access to government information, and ability to grill officials in the chamber. So we decided to stay on.
But by then, I knew — and I’m not alone — that things would just go downhill. So I’d actually already started clearing out my office. I’m like, It’s coming. And so here we are.
That’s incredible. So in terms of those postponed elections, will the Hong Kong government allow pro-democracy lawmakers to stand in the next election? Is that even a possibility anymore?
The answer is yes and no. Yes, because they just might allow some moderates to put on a benign face. And no, if you’re considered quite outspoken, or you’ve been one of the baddies in their eyes, you’re out.
But the main thing is, [the Hong Kong government] is now trying to allow Hongkongers living in mainland China to vote from the mainland. That number of voters could amount to up to half a million votes. If that’s the case, they’re trying to ensure the chances of winning for the pro-Beijing camp in the upcoming election.
So is it going to be fair? Is it going to be transparent, the election? I have strong reservations, because the voting would be taking place up on mainland China. Who’s going to do the vote-counting? And who’s going to ensure there’s no rigging? And so on, and so forth.
The Hong Kong government is looking to push that law, which would allow Hongkongers to vote on the mainland, through the Legislative Council right now. And I imagine that will happen, that the Legislative Council is now essentially a rubber stamp?
Absolutely correct. And that’s also one key reason why they’re anxious to see us out.
I see. Is the Legislative Council now, in your mind, just an extension of Beijing? Or does it serve any function to the citizens and the people who remain in Hong Kong?
The Hong Kong legislature has this very twisted election method. [Pro-democracy candidates] have always been hugely outnumbered. So it’s always been kind of an extension of the pro-Chinese branch. But we were hoping to at least fight for a majority number in the now-canceled election.
That’s why the election didn’t happen, really. They were losing. They were terrified that the [pro-democracy candidates] would actually claim a majority of seats.
So some might look at all this and say, “Well, that’s the end of your democracy fight.” But not exactly. I would not say that. Things might look bleak in the near term because 1) there’s no fight at the street level because of the pandemic restrictions, and 2) there’s no more legislative fight.
And so where are you going to fight? Doesn’t seem to be many choices out there. But don’t underestimate Hong Kong people’s determination to fight on, especially in the hearts of our young people. They are fighting for their future, and it’s their future we’re fighting for.
We need to be answerable to the next generations. We may fail. But the thing is, you fight. You may not get what you want. But if you don’t fight, you definitely won’t get what you want. You need to try. I personally would claim that I have tried, and I’m answerable to history.
This is a sentiment I hear from talking to a lot of people in Hong Kong, including young people who participated in the protests. I don’t know if fatalism is the right word, but there’s this sense that you’re fighting even though the outcome is predetermined. That must be a hard thing to accept, especially given that only a year ago, there were such massive outpourings on the street. It all seems very different now.
That’s quite true. I’ve been at this legislature for eight years — two terms. I certainly have witnessed the fact that every time Hong Kong’s people step up our fight for democracy, Beijing would just tighten the noose around us. There’s a certain amount of fatalism in there.
But there is also determination, hope, and fight that’s embedded in our heads. If we all just give up now, we might as well all quit Hong Kong. Is this really the thing we all want to do? In any case, what happens to those people who can’t emigrate? What are they going to do? We need to fight on.
Do you have any sense of what your next steps will be now, even though you’re no longer in the Legislative Council?
I think I’ll carry on with the political campaign, at least as a part of it. I would be perfectly happy to do that with my other [pro-democracy] colleagues. And some of the social campaigns in which I’ve been active, like those fighting for ethnic minority rights — basically against racism in Hong Kong — and animal rights. And I am an English teacher, so I’ll keep doing that a bit, online.
I’m also curious if members of the pro-democracy opposition are hoping for stronger outside support. Is there something you think the United States or other international partners need to do that they haven’t done so far?
That’s a tricky question. No, that’s a tricky question. Under the national security law, it’s a crime to collude with foreign forces, especially to the extent of seeking assistance to badmouth to malign or to even sanction the authorities here and up north in Beijing. So I think, for self-preservation’s sake, I will refrain from replying to that question. But, of course, some moral support will always be welcome.
Oh, god, that’s right, I didn’t even think about that. That’s a really stark reminder of how stressful life must be in Hong Kong right now —
Oh, you need to watch your words. You need to be careful, because they can come and nick you at any time.
To that point, the national security law passed in July — has there been a noticeable change in Hong Kong, months after this law went into effect?
I definitely feel that Hong Kong is experiencing Cultural Revolution scenarios, Hong Kong-style. The local police actually encourage you to report — to snitch — on your friends, or your neighbors.
They have this hotline ready, so you can call up the police say, “I suspect my neighbor has done this and that.” And so it’s very sad. I was born and brought up here. I never, ever expected Hong Kong to have reached such a state of things.
People have started to guard their words. Usually, our cab drivers are very chatty. But these days, they would prefer to keep quiet during the journey, just in case you’re a policeman or policewoman sitting in the back. It’s very sad.
Hong Kong people feel they have this black cloud hanging over them. They don’t know who is safe and who to talk to and what is really safe to do. So that is Hong Kong in November 2020.
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