Several pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong were arrested on 1-2 November in connection with a meeting of the city’s Legislative Council in May, which saw protest and scuffles between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing members. The heckling and shoving began as Council members vied for control of a committee that proposes bills for debate. Police stated that the politicians were charged with “contempt” and “interfering” with the Council. None of the pro-Beijing politicians have been arrested. If convicted, the charged individuals will face up to one year in prison. The arrests come amidst an ongoing crackdown on dissent, which intensified with a new national security law imposed by the Chinese government in June, following a year of protest in Hong Kong, according to Al Jazeera, the New York Times, and the BBC.
In the Council, only half of seats are directly elected, and pro-Beijing politicians are guaranteed a majority due to an appointment system that reserves seats for industries and interest groups. Protests and scuffles are routine occurrences, as pro-democracy members resort to chanting, filibustering, and obstruction in attempts to halt bills they oppose. One such politician stalled debate for months on a number of key bills, drawing condemnation from pro-Beijing politicians and the Chinese government.
Furthermore, in recent years, as pro-democracy members have gained prominence through anti-government protests, scuffles have become increasingly common within the Council. For example, prior to last year’s historic protests against Chinese interference and particularly against a bill to allow extraditions to mainland China—which saw more than 10,000 people arrested—the bill was debated in chaotic Council sessions.
Following months of deadlock, the Council meeting in May grew contentious as pro-Beijing members forcibly installed one of their politicians as chair of the House Committee. Pro-democracy members then struggled to storm the chair’s seat as pro-Beijing politicians and security guards carried them out of the room by force. One pro-Beijing member dragged a pro-democracy politician out by the collar on live television. In the end, the installation of the pro-Beijing politician went ahead.
In late June, as a response to growing pro-democracy resistance, the Chinese government bypassed legislative procedures to impose a new national security law upon Hong Kong. The Chinese government claims that the law has restored stability, but in reality it grants China significant new powers that severely limit the freedoms of Hong Kong citizens. The Chinese Liaison Office in Hong Kong has warned that protests against the Council, under the new law, are punishable by life imprisonment. The law has been widely condemned by human rights groups, writes Al Jazeera.
The COVID-19 pandemic has served as a basis for further abuse of the democratic freedoms of Hong Kong citizens. The Hong Kong government has aggressively dispersed protestors under the guise of enforcing social distancing guidelines. Furthermore, in July, the government postponed an election scheduled for September, citing risks of a surge of COVID-19. Pro-democracy politicians have condemned the postponement, claiming it was a tactic to delay a loss for pro-Beijing members, according to the New York Times.
In response to the November arrests of the pro-democracy politicians who tried to depose the pro-Beijing member as the House Committee’s chair, other members of the Democratic Party questioned why no pro-Beijing legislators had been charged. The police chief inspector responded in a statement on 1 November that “law enforcement action is taken in accordance with law and evidence gathered during the recent police investigation … [and is not] about the social status or political background” of the arrested. In response, the Democratic Party proclaimed: “We will not back down in the face of an authoritarian regime.”
The future of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong—from free elections to fair representation and the right to protest—is bleak at best. The structure of the Council, the breakdown of democratic norms into chaos in the legislature, and the Chinese government’s abuse of the law and police forces all bolster the rise of authoritarianism in Hong Kong.
Still, the pro-democracy movement that has recently gained traction is far from crushed. In order to supplant authoritarianism, citizens must return to the streets in peaceful protest. The risks of protesting under the security law are significant, but there is no other way to spur change. In great enough numbers, the protesters may succeed in overwhelming the Hong Kong government. In doing so, the demonstrators must appeal to human rights organizations, which will offer support and legitimacy to their demands for fair representation, an end to Chinese interference, and the release of the arrested politicians. Thus, pro-democracy politicians may regain democratically legitimate control within the Council and secure long-lasting change.
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