Beijing’s unexpected decision to allow four disqualified lawmakers to serve out the extended term of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council has caught many pro-establishment figures by surprise, given the central government’s hardball approach towards the city in the past few months.
One pro-establishment heavyweight said they believed Beijing wanted to avoid direct confrontation with Washington ahead of the US presidential election on November 3, while mainland academics said they expected the decision to be conducive to political reconciliation in a polarised Hong Kong.
A resolution allowing all incumbent lawmakers to stay on for another year, following the postponement of this year’s Legco elections is expected to be endorsed when the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), China’s top legislative body, concludes its four-day session on Tuesday, the Post has learned.
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Speaking on condition of anonymity, a pro-establishment politician said the expected move should be considered “in the context of US-China relations”.
“With just 80-odd days to go before the US presidential election, Beijing doesn’t want to provoke the US,” the politician said.
“Purging the four opposition lawmakers for political reasons would only give the US the pretext to target China. Washington would certainly make a big fuss claiming China was depriving the seats of democratically elected Hong Kong lawmakers.”
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced on July 31 that the Legco polls, originally planned for September 6, would be postponed by a year, citing the Covid-19 pandemic.
The postponement, however, raised the question of whether four incumbent opposition lawmakers recently disqualified from running again – Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, Kwok Ka-ki and Dennis Kwok of the Civic Party, and the accountancy sector’s Kenneth Leung – could continue to serve in the coming year.
Election officials had cited the city’s new national security law and pan-democrats’ previous calls for foreign governments to sanction Beijing and Hong Kong as reasons for their disqualification.
Xia Baolong, director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), presented a resolution on the “continuation of Hong Kong’s sixth Legco” to the NPCSC on Saturday.
Beijing’s approach to the four legislators appears at odds with overwhelming calls from Hong Kong’s pro-establishment camp for the lawmakers to be barred from the body’s extended term, on the grounds of their disqualification from seeking re-election.
I’m disappointed that the four legislators who have been barred from seeking re-election are likely to be allowed to stay on
Executive Council member Ip Kwok-him
Indeed, some pro-establishment figures may have missed a previous subtle message from Beijing that the four disqualified lawmakers might be able to stay on. During a meeting with a dozen pro-establishment lawmakers in Hong Kong earlier this month, HKMAO deputy director Zhang Xiaoming said he considered the extended term a continuation of the current Legco, whose tenure expires on September 30.
Ip Kwok-him, a member of the Executive Council, the chief executive’s de facto cabinet, said the title of the resolution indicated all serving lawmakers would continue to serve in the extended term.
“I’m disappointed that the four legislators who have been barred from seeking re-election are likely to be allowed to stay on. Many Hong Kong people are unhappy with their behaviour in the past few years,” he said.
“But we have to act in accordance with the NPCSC’s decision.”
Ip had previously suggested setting up a “caretaker Legco” comprising all but the four lawmakers in question, saying it did not “make sense if they stay for another year”.
Pro-establishment lawmaker Paul Tse Wai-chun, who had also said it would be difficult to justify allowing the disqualified lawmakers to serve in the extended term, said on Monday that he did not mind them staying on if the NPCSC made such a decision.
“But I think it doesn’t make sense in terms of logic,” he said.
A source familiar with the matter said Beijing’s softer stance was based on input from Carrie Lam and moderates within the pro-establishment camp.
“There will be some formal procedures with which incumbents should have little difficulty complying,” the source said. “There should be no need to specify in the oath their support for the national security law in the process, as the legislation has been added to Annex 3 of the Basic Law and compliance with it is implied.”
Top Chinese lawmakers imposed their own national security law on the city on June 30, outlawing acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in the city’s affairs.
Another source with knowledge of the NPCSC meeting had said on Saturday that incumbent lawmakers would have the chance to stay on after going through certain procedures, such as signing a declaration form or taking oaths.
Tian Feilong, an associate professor at Beihang University’s law school in Beijing, said allowing all incumbent lawmakers to serve out the provisional term would be the best arrangement.
“It is a sign of respect for the ‘one country, two systems’ [framework],” he said. “The move would help restore political harmony in Hong Kong, and various political forces could stand together to support the government to fight the pandemic.”
Li Xiaobing, a Hong Kong specialist and a law professor at Nankai University in Tianjin, said he believed Beijing had exercised restraint in handling the fate of the four disqualified legislators.
“Tolerance of different views is the hallmark of the one country, two systems concept,” Li said. “There is no point why the central government can’t tolerate those four lawmakers for a year.”
A source close to the government said the decision to allow all the incumbents to stay on would cause the least disruption and avoid further turmoil.
“With the imposition of the national security law, opposition in Legco may be more restrained in blocking the government’s initiatives. There is another advantage – members are already familiar with the bills carried over from the last Legco session,” the source said.
Kenneth Leung and Alvin Yeung declined to comment on Monday.
Separately, the opposition camp, including representatives from traditional parties and the localist newcomers who won in the camp’s July primary, met on Sunday to consider how to respond to the upcoming decision.
Some localists have urged pan-democrats to consider quitting en masse in protest, even if the four are allowed to stay. However, sources said no consensus was reached in the meeting.
Additional reporting by Kimmy Chung
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