Tea Leaf Nation
What Is Going on in Hong Kong?
Why newly elected legislators cursed and protested — at their own swearing-in.
There’s a bit of a nanny state in the city of Hong Kong. The government is quick to issue advice and admonitions about all matter of hazards — high ocean waves, food waste, incense burning during the annual grave-sweeping festival. One night in late 2014, amid a standoff during the massive democracy protest that rocked the city, a police official squawked through a bullhorn: do not swear. The response was a lusty spasm of curses. Still, many residents were surprised when government officials posted a note online on Oct. 11, the day before the new session of the city’s Legislative Council, saying lawmakers of the officially (but not always truly) autonomous government were required by constitution to “swear allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.” China exercises sovereignty over Hong Kong, but agreed to let the former British colony function under a separate system until at least 2047. The notice warned that a lawmaker who failed to state the oath as written, or who altered the wording to make it “inconsistent with” the written ordinance, “shall vacate office or be disqualified from entering.” To government opponents, the warning must have sounded like an invitation.
The territory’s government, which maintains cozy ties with Beijing, has scrambled to deal with a new breed of political opposition. Weeks before the legislative elections in September, the elections bureau asked every candidate hoping to appear on the ballot to pledge that the territory was an inalienable part of China, an unprecedented requirement that launched an uproar. The city barred several pro-independence candidates from running; two have filed court appeals. If their petitions succeed, a court would likely overturn the election results in those districts, requiring new balloting there.
The men and woman struck from the ballot urged residents to stand up to Beijing, a message that swayed many voters. On election day, Sept. 4, one-fifth of a record 2.2 million people who cast ballots chose candidates who either advocated independence or wanted voters to choose the territory’s future government, a right they currently lack. A growing number of city residents say Beijing has whittled down their constitutional rights, despite assurances made in 1997 when Britain handed its former colony to Beijing, that a one-country, two-systems arrangement would preserve Hong Kong’s rights for 50 years.
By law, and before they can start their jobs, all 70 Hong Kong lawmakers must repeat a phrase swearing loyalty to the People’s Republic. Yet several new members had run on platforms pledging to wrench Hong Kong’s independence from China, or to fight for a referendum to let city residents choose such a path. How could they pledge fealty to a government they hoped to divorce?
On Oct. 12, some chose to recite their own vows. Eddie Chu, a land rights activist, gave the required pledge, but added: “Democracy and self-determination. Autocracy will die!” Secretary-General Kenneth Chen, who administered the oaths, allowed him to take his seat. But Chen scolded newcomer Yau Wai-ching from deviating from the official text, as the 25-year-old member of upstart political party Youngspiration unfurled a large blue banner that declared Hong Kong is not China. “I will uphold the Basic Law of the Hong Kong special administrative region of the People’s Refucking of Shina,” she read, hurrying through the lines twice more, as if she expected to be pulled off the floor. (The term “Shina” is considered derogatory, and was used by Japanese during the occupation, although some scholars have noted earlier uses.) Youngspiration founder Sixtus Leung, known as Baggio, wrapped himself in the anti-China banner and, fingers crossed, changed his pronunciation of “China.” Later, he told reporters that his accent was to blame.
Secretary-general Chen barred both Yau and Leung from taking their seats, and voting for the body’s new president. That prompted the chamber’s youngest member, newly elected democracy advocate Nathan Law, to argue that his colleagues should not be censored. “Absolute and autocratic powers will not live forever,” the 23-year-old said in a nod to Mahatma Gandhi. “There should be democratic self-determination and there will be continuous struggle.”
Excluding two of the body’s most radical members — both who favor Hong Kong’s independence — from their new roles has riled residents and democracy advocates. Their words offended many, and some readers commented online that the young politicians should just pledge as required, then get on with the hard work of governing. Lawyers are debating whether oaths are valid if someone mispronounces certain words or amends the statement, says Wilson Leung, convener of the Progressive Lawyers Group, which includes 90 pro-democracy lawyers.
The dicier question is how the government will work with officials who believe Hong Kong is not part of China. The day before the ceremony, the Beijing government issued a warning in two Hong Kong newspapers friendly to Beijing, Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao. If the disbarred lawmakers appealed in court, and judges could not determine if the oaths met the city’s constitutional standard, China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, will weigh in.
Yau and Sixtus Leung will get another chance on Wednesday to affirm their loyalty to Beijing. Newly elected Legco president Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen said that if the two Youngspiration party members refused to follow their lines, he would consult with the chamber’s lawyer. “The law mentioned ‘removal,’ but I don’t want to take this step,” he said. After days of censure by city residents, Leung indicated the two would “consider compromising” but insisted they had done nothing wrong. Days earlier, Leung said he’d make no promises about concerning his pledge. “We will see,” he said, “what else we have in our arsenal.” Whatever happens, it’s clear that the body’s newest, most cantankerous members will carry on their battle with the mainland, in ways both large and small.
ANTHONY WALLACE/GETTY IMAGES