The summer of 2016 began on a bright note for Hongkonger Edward Leung Tin-kei. Then 25, he was hopeful of a breakthrough in the Legislative Council elections after making a huge impression on voters in a by-election five months earlier.
But dark clouds soon gathered over his candidacy as he found himself having to recant his position on independence for Hong Kong.
Facing a sea of cameras, the poster boy for Hong Kong independence told the press: “If I continue to take the moral high ground, I will be barred from entering the legislature as they wish.”
For good measure, a defiant Leung added: “In the end, I reckon the means are not as important as the end.”
He soon found himself barred from being a candidate, after the returning officer declared that his U-turn was insincere.
Two years on, pro-democracy hopeful Lau Siu-lai has become the ninth person since 2016 to be disallowed from contesting an election because of her political stance.
Like Leung, the pan-democratic camp’s top choice for the November by-election in Kowloon West was knocked out because she once advocated self-determination for Hong Kong, never mind that she was cleared to run in the 2016 race while maintaining that position.
Although the 42-year-old academic had stopped calling for self-determination, her fate in the coming poll was no different than Leung’s.
This latest action against Lau shows a shifting red line laid down by Beijing on Hong Kong in the name of national security. Critics decry it as a blatant crushing of the new pro-democracy icons who came of age in the wake of 2014’s Occupy movement, the 79-day civil disobedience campaign for greater democracy that crippled parts of the city.
It also raises the somewhat Orwellian question: under Beijing’s increasingly hawkish watch, can politically active Hongkongers who displease the authorities get a second chance to re-enter politics?
No second chance?
The more immediate procedural concern is that Lau was disqualified with nary an official explanation. The government defied an earlier court ruling requiring electoral officials to give contenders a “reasonable opportunity” to address any concerns before making a decision.
Lau submitted her forms on October 2 and heard nothing until October 12, when she received the rejection notice.
The returning officer, a civil servant appointed by the Electoral Affairs Commission, decided that Lau had not genuinely changed her stance even though she had several months earlier abandoned calls for self-determination.
Bar Association chairman Philip Dykes said procedural fairness required the officer to check with Lau, and that it was a “disproportionate” move to disqualify a person from political office for life because of what he or she once said.
Occupy student leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung was more pessimistic.
“From now on, elections in Hong Kong will lose their legitimacy,” he told the Post. “We used to say that at least half the Legco seats are democratically elected but now, it is crystal clear a vetting process has been inserted before polling begins.”
Half of Hong Kong’s 70 lawmakers are returned through direct elections, with the rest elected by trade-based constituencies with a narrower franchise.
Lau was never an advocate of Hong Kong independence, a clear bottom line both Beijing and the local government have ruled as unacceptable and in breach of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution. What she had called for was self-determination, a concept which in theory did not mean pushing for independence.
Democracy scholar Professor Larry Diamond of Stanford University argued that self-determination could simply mean giving Hong Kong the right to choose how it ought to be governed, and this should not be conflated with the outright pursuit of independence.
Others dismiss this as splitting hairs, as self-determination could still mean independence as an option.
What clearly touched a raw nerve with authorities was that Lau once said the option of independence should be left open – a more pronounced point than merely calling for self-determination.
The government meanwhile has taken a broader view of what advocating for independence means in Hong Kong. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said the day after Lau’s disqualification : “One should not expect to be able to become a lawmaker if he or she advocates independence, self-determination or argues that ‘independence’ could be an option.”
Asked what a former independence advocate should do to be allowed to contest elections, Lam only said: “The evidence would be clear if this young person joined the government after graduating from university.”
Beijing loyalist Wong Kwok-kin, an adviser to Lam in her cabinet, the Executive Council, offered a suggestion. “If a person has indeed changed his stance on independence, he should pen an article on his social media platform or in newspapers to criticise the arguments he once held, explain why the cause is infeasible and illustrate how he has changed his mind.”
Wong denied this was effectively asking for a statement of repentance – a common practice on the mainland. He said Lau was barred because she changed her stance only in the run-up to the by-election, which was hardly reassuring.
Joshua Wong, now secretary general of youth-led group Demosisto, laughed off Wong Kwok-kin’s suggestion.
“Why should we bring self-criticism reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution to the electoral culture in Hong Kong?” he asked. “After all, these are just tools to threaten young people and discourage them from participating in politics.”
Given the government’s immovable position, he said he did not believe that he or his peers such as fellow Occupy student leader Nathan Law Kwun-chung would be able to stand for elections in the foreseeable future.
“The election ban on Lau has not only ‘disqualified’ a whole generation of young people, but also all rising political leaders following the Occupy protest,” the 22-year-old student said.
A final cleansing of Occupy’s new faces
The flurry of disqualifications could be said to stem from Edward Leung’s respectable performance in a Legco by-election in February 2016. He came in third in the New Territories East poll, with observers hailing it as a sign the city’s politics would be steered into uncharted territory.
But Leung and five others were then disqualified from contesting the September 2016 Legco elections because they had called for Hong Kong to break away from China or refused to pledge allegiance to the Basic Law, which states that the city is an inalienable part of China.
In the months that followed, six lawmakers, including Lau Siu-lai, were ousted following legal challenges by the government over their improper oaths of office.
In January this year, Joshua Wong’s party colleague Agnes Chow Ting was banned from running in the by-election for the Hong Kong Island constituency seat on grounds that Demosisto advocated self-determination for Hong Kong.
And in an unprecedented move last month, Lam’s administration outlawed the separatist Hong Kong National Party on grounds of protecting national security, by invoking the Societies Ordinance.
Observers say these actions show an administration that is taking seriously President Xi Jinping’s warning to Hongkongers last year not to cross the “red line” of threatening China’s sovereignty.
In February, Li Fei, now chairman of the Law and Constitution Committee in Beijing, placed the final nail in the coffin by ruling that calls for self-determination were no different from advocating for independence.
“All the new powers that emerged in the wake of the 2014 Occupy protests are now barred from elections, and whether we can still exist outside the establishment remains a question,” Joshua Wong said, referring to his party, which he feared could be the next on the chopping block.
Occupy movement leader Dr Chan Kin-man, a sociologist from Chinese University, said: “The authorities are trying to set themselves against a generation of people. The disqualification is not just about Lau alone, but also the civil rights of everyone.”
But he said it was still too early to say how the crackdown in the wake of the Occupy protests had affected the city’s fight for democracy.
“Some might leave out of frustration, but the oppression they experience today might also fully unfold one day,” he said.
Former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang, now convenor of the think tank Hong Kong 2020, said Lau’s disqualification over views she expressed two years ago was not only arbitrary but also lacking in transparency as due process had not been followed.
“Lau’s disqualification will only add to young people’s increasing disillusionment with and distrust of Beijing and the Hong Kong government,” she said. “This is no way to engage our younger generation or to foster love of the motherland.”
Joshua Wong, meanwhile, pledged to push on with his activism and said he believed international lobbying might work to defend the city’s freedoms.
“The fight in Hong Kong has been difficult – but definitely not as tough as in many countries in Southeast Asia,” he said.
Under the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, Washington supports democratisation and human rights for Hong Kong and has a special policy towards the city – different from its policy towards China – as long as it is “sufficiently autonomous”.
Some activists, including Andy Chan Ho-tin from the outlawed Hong Kong National Party, have urged US President Donald Trump’s administration to scrap Hong Kong’s special status given the escalating concerns over the city’s autonomy.
Several US politicians have echoed the call. A group of US senators – including Marco Rubio, of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China – have also resurfaced the shelved Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would set out heavy punishment for local government officials or those in mainland China who suppress basic freedoms in the city.
Wong said: “Against the backdrop of the US-China trade war, it is interesting to note whether the US would revisit Hong Kong’s special status if the city’s government continues to do whatever it wants to erode freedoms and rights.”
For now, it is Hong Kong’s young activists who have to revisit their own status – to be within or outside the system.
Additional reporting by Alvin Lum