Protests have fired up again in central Hong Kong after Beijing delved into Hong Kong’s politics too far for some locals’ liking. This is the latest upset in a stream of unrest since the 2014 Yellow Umbrella Movement. The protests this week were sparked by Beijing’s decision to bar two new pro-independence councillors from Hong Kong’s legislative council. The decision was made after Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-Ching purposefully changed an oath councillors must make upon entry to the council.
Although officially speaking Hong Kong is part of China, it was granted a high degree of autonomy from the mainland after Britain handed the city over in 1997. This apparent autonomy does appear, however, to be increasingly violated and the ousting of Leung and Yau is no exception. Beijing has made it blindingly clear that pro-independence leaders are not welcome. “If you don’t deal with the two cancer cells, you will harm the entire body”, stated Zhang Xiaoming, an important official for liaison between the Beijing and Hong Kong governments. Beijing doesn’t just reject the views of the pro-independence camp, it intends to crush them.
Central to the issue is a phrase used by Leung and Yau at their oath taking – 支那, or Cheena – a phrase considered derogatory due to its use by Japan to describe China during its colonising of Manchuria. This was indeed not sensible, perhaps less sensible than the ‘Hong Kong is not China’ flag the two brought with them. There are few topics more contentious in China than the Sino-Japanese War and such an action would be enough to make Beijing’s blood boil. That said, a statement from the capital expressing that Hong Kong should be careful not to use insults related to an event for which the mainland suffered so heavily, forgot to take into account that Hong Kong itself was occupied by Japan and that the statement itself just portrayed Hong Kong as other from the mainland. That doesn’t help in any way their claims of unity.
However, there has perhaps been too much focus on the insults used in Leung and Yau’s speeches. There is a local statute that says a person “who declines or neglects to take an oath duly requested is disqualified from entering office”. One could argue that by changing the oath, both new legislators are therefore in a position to be disqualified.
Hong Kong’s basic law does also give Beijing the right to interpret it, without permission from Hong Kong’s court or government. Because of this, Beijing has not broken – or even bent for that matter – any law.
The real implication is what Beijing’s increased action in the region means. The official line on the two governments’ relationship is ‘one country, two systems’ but this concept falls apart if Beijing exerts too much influence in Hong Kong’s politics. The two strongly distinct elements of the Hong Kong system are its democracy and rule of law. By kicking out the pro-independence legislators, Beijing showed that democracy is only allowed within a tight framework.
The recent events in Hong Kong are complex. On the one hand, Hong Kong’s freedom of speech appears violated by Beijing. On the other hand, the capital has up to now acted entirely within the law. Leung and Yau took a risk as they made their oaths, and the result was another loss to Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Tim van Gardingen
(Image courtesy of The Telegraph)