Joshua Wong is the secretary general and co-founder of Demosisto, a political party in Hong Kong. Jeffrey Ngo is a master’s degree student in global histories at New York University.
“You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body,” Mahatma Gandhi, the prominent icon of nonviolent civil disobedience, once said. “But you will never imprison my mind.”
Our friend Nathan Law, chairman of Demosisto, a youth political party, repeated these words at the Hong Kong Legislative Council inauguration ceremony last October. “I would never serve a regime that murders its own people,” he added, before reading the official oath in full. For this, he will be going to court early March to face a lawsuit filed by Hong Kong’s Department of Justice, which intends to unseat him.
He’s not alone, as the government has also launched the same legal challenge against three of his colleagues in the opposition camp. While ludicrous in every way, this all-out effort by an undemocratically appointed administration, using taxpayer money, to remove democratically elected legislators from office is unfortunately far from an isolated incident. Rather, it’s consistent with the increasing pressure Beijing has been exerting on Hong Kong in order to strengthen control of our city.
As core members of Law’s campaign team, we fought extremely hard to send the former Umbrella Movement student leader into our legislative council. History was made when he won a seat in September at age 23, becoming the youngest legislator ever elected in Hong Kong. He represents the democracy movement of this generation and the desperate call for self-determination to decide Hong Kong’s uncertain future.
The transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty on July 1, 1997, from Britain to China was a deal the two powers had negotiated behind closed doors. Hong Kongers took no part in it except for being promised that the existing political and economic systems would remain unchanged for half a century.
Months before the handover’s 20th anniversary this year, Hong Kong is at its lowest point.
A brutal assault on our democratic system began back in the summer. The Electoral Affairs Commission explicitly cited intolerable political stance as the reason for barring six otherwise qualified candidates from running in the September election, including Chan Ho Tin, a vocal pro-independence activist of the Hong Kong National Party, and Alice Lai of the Conservative Party, which calls for a return to British rule.
Amid the chaos, the party Youngspiration slipped through the screening process and was allowed to contest. The independence-leaning group sent three candidates, two of whom — Baggio Leung, 30, and Yau Wai Ching, 25 — each won a seat. But as they were sworn in, they changed the words of their oaths and waved a flag declaring “Hong Kong is not China.” The Department of Justice immediately took the matter to court.
Then, on Nov. 7, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress broke protocol by intervening in the still ongoing trial. The top Chinese legislative body issued a so-called “interpretation” of the Basic Law — Hong Kong’s constitutional document — explicitly requiring incoming legislators to either “sincerely and solemnly” pledge loyalty to the regime or “be treated as declining to take the oath.” Abiding by it, the local court consequently disqualified Leung and Yau, who have been ordered to return $240,00 in salaries and operating funds to the Legislative Council. Adding to that debt are the hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees the Youngspiration duo is expected to pay for the defeat.
To say the least, the notion that Law, who is still trying to complete his college degree part-time, may likewise be forced into bankruptcy, deeply troubles us. He did no more than choose to quote Gandhi and promise to be loyal only to his voters.
Beijing’s power of “interpretation,” as its name suggests, is much more than overriding the judicial system in Hong Kong: It’s a power to rewrite existing laws, twisting them in whatever way is most suitable to the communist regime’s political agenda and, by definition, it’s applicable retroactively to prior actions committed. As this specific “interpretation” establishes narrow guidelines for the oath-taking process, it conveniently permits the Hong Kong government to file endless lawsuits against anyone in the opposition it deems inauthentic — a very subjective criterion. In essence, Beijing is interfering with Hong Kong’s affairs by inviting the executive branch’s use of the judiciary branch to delegitimize the legislative branch. It’s a complete wreckage of the separation of powers.
The autonomy of Hong Kong is clearly at stake. In total, the six legislators dragged into this legal challenge (five of whom were elected for the first time) have received 185,727 votes between them, reflecting the views of a significant voter base.
But it’s the enlargement of this battle that’s most worrisome, for it reveals the Chinese leadership’s deep insecurities and belief that harmony can be achieved only when all those voicing disagreement are ousted. In the past, Beijing went after the most outspoken separatists. In the present, Beijing is coming after those who call for self-determination. In the future, Beijing may come after those who merely support multi-party democracy in the mainland.
The world will once again turn its attention to our city in the year ahead. Since the incumbent leader Leung Chun-ying is not seeking another term, the chief executive election, to be held in March, will significantly alter Hong Kong’s path for the next half-decade to come, for better or worse. President Xi Jinping seems undecided at this point on whether to handpick a hard-liner in order to impose tighter control, or more of a moderate in hopes of easing political tensions, as Leung’s successor. Either way, Beijing is almost certainly going to use the handover anniversary, on July 1, as an occasion to celebrate the successful implementation of “One Country, Two Systems” — as it has always claimed.
Recent events, as we hope the international community will realize, indicate otherwise.