A series of by-elections expected to be held in Hong Kong later this year will test the ability of pro-democracy forces to work together in opposition to Beijing’s mounting intervention.

A Hong Kong court ruling this afternoon means that four lawmakers – Nathan Law Kwun-chung, Lau Siu-lai, Edward Yiu Chung-yim and “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung – will be disqualified from the Legislative Council (LegCo). The case was the second in a sequence brought by the Hong Kong government and brings the total number of pro-democracy lawmakers disqualified to six.

The positions of as many as 10 legislators elected in September 2016 from the anti-Beijing camp could be in jeopardy. Cases have been brought against eight lawmakers over their oath-taking in October last year and two others face charges related to their activities in the 2014 Umbrella Movement.

“The by-elections will be an indicator of Hong Kong’s determination to resist, to push back against Beijing and try to keep the Mainland political system at bay,” says Suzanne Pepper, a Hong Kong-based American academic and writer.

“Beijing wants conservatives to take these seats away from pan-democrats and at the least take the seats from the younger generation of pan-democrats,” Pepper told The News Lens in Hong Kong on July 2.

Neither the schedule for the by-elections nor the exact number of seats that will be contested is known at this stage, a Hong Kong government spokesperson told The News Lens this week. Following today’s decision, despite a likely appeal, it is still possible that as many as 10 lawmakers in Hong Kong’s 70-seat parliament could be disqualified.

Hong Kong’s electoral officials have earmarked HK$320 million (US$41 million) for any possible by-elections, more than three times the amount slated for the election of the Hong Kong chief executive in March.

Erosion of autonomy

The 2014 Umbrella Movement saw more than 100,000 occupy the streets of Hong Kong in protest of a move by Beijing to have greater control over Hong Kong’s electoral system. Widely seen as an important show of solidarity by Hong Kongers, the years since have seen the rise of prominent young activists calling for self-determination, or even independence for Hong Kong. Concurrently, however, there have been several key events that exposed China’s continued disregard for Hong Kong autonomy.

Between October and December 2015, five staff from the city’s Causeway Bay Bookstore, which sold books critical of China’s leadership, went missing. Gui Minhai, one of the store’s booksellers, was abducted in Thailand and reappeared later on Chinese state television, but remains the only group member in detention in China.

Human Rights Watch has noted the Chinese government “has yet to explain whether, and under what circumstances, Mainland security forces are operating in the territory, and Hong Kong authorities have failed to press for such information.”

Late last year, the initial optimism in Hong Kong following the September 2016 elections – which saw record turnout and five young post-Occupy activists elected – was quickly dampened by what became known as the “oath-taking saga.”

During their swearing in to the parliament on Oct. 12, young Hong Kong political activists-cum-lawmakers Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus "Baggio" Leung Chung-hang, donned a flag with the words “Hong Kong is not China” while swearing and insulting China.

The Hong Kong government challenged the pair’s qualification to parliament in court and Beijing made a rare intervention, rewriting Hong Kong’s constitution – known as the Basic Law – to effectively bar the then newly-elected pair from taking their seats in the LegCo. The government followed that action by moving to disqualify another six legislators over their oaths. A further two face charges for actions during the 2014 protests.

On Jan. 27, Xiao Jianhua, a Chinese billionaire and owner of the Tomorrow Group was reported missing. He was last seen at the Four Season Hotel Hong Kong, where he was living at the time. It was rumored he was seized by police along with his personal bodyguards.

While each of these events drew widespread international attention, it is perhaps the response of the Hong Kong courts to the oath-taking saga that has Pepper most worried. The courts, which are based on the British legal system, have long been heralded for being a cornerstone of the rule of law and separation of powers that distinguishes Hong Kong from communist China.

Yau and Leung, the pair at the center of the furor, challenged the decision of the Hong Kong government and Beijing’s intervention in court but their efforts have so far been unsuccessful – though a final appeal will be heard next month.

Pepper anticipated their case would progress through the courts and that an “accommodation” would be found based on the retrospective aspect of the Basic Law interpretation. She expected Hong Kong judges would be able to “come up with some clever, legalistic argument about why they didn’t have to implement it in the Mainland-way.”

“I really thought they would find some way of getting around those strict rules. Instead the judges were very hardline and they followed Beijing’s rules absolutely.”

She notes that the defense counsel for Yau and Leung was even ridiculed by members of the judiciary for attempting the argument around retrospectivity.

“When it was that definitive and it went through different layers of appeal, and still the judges were hardline. It is as though it was written into law by July 1, 1997 [when Hong Kong was officially handed over from the U.K. to China]. That is outrageous.”

Xi’s ‘red line’ and the biggest demonstration since the Umbrella Movement

AFP reported on July 2 that a landmark visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Hong Kong for the 20th anniversary of the 1997 handover had “left little doubt that Beijing views the city as a destabilizing hotbed of unacceptable political dissent that must prove its loyalty.”

Xi’s trip culminated on July 1 with a 30-minute speech warning that any threat to China's sovereignty and security or to the power of the central government "crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible.”

Just hours after Xi departed, tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters marched through the city’s streets for the annual July 1 protest. During the march, student protest leader Joshua Wong acknowledged the chilling effect of recent police and government crackdowns in Hong Kong.

“When we are unlawfully detained in the police station – what I experienced a few days ago – and suddenly face a lot of prosecutions and trials, people might feel tired,” Wong told The News Lens, adding that he was “really glad” to see the numbers of people who had taken to the streets.

“It’s hard to make a comparison with the number of participants in the 2014, but it is the largest demonstration after the end of the Umbrella Movement," Wong said.

Pepper agrees that there is an “endemic fear” of the Chinese system of government.

“There is a general hardening dissonant attitude here,” she says. “People do not like what is happening in terms of the gradual political takeover. The public doesn’t like that. There is still this basic fear of Mainland politics and the Communist Party.”

Time for democrats to ‘get smart’

However, the widely-held negative sentiment toward China and increased youth political participation will not necessarily equate to success in the by-elections, Pepper warns.

The “pan-democrat” groups in Hong Kong are notorious for factional splits and have frequently run candidates against each other in prior elections, gifting conservative pro-Beijing candidates a higher chance of winning.

“What they’ve done in effect is weaken their forces and allow more and more from the pro-establishment camp – their real adversaries – to win those seats,” Pepper says.

The seats themselves are important, prior to the disqualifications, 40 seats were held by pro-Beijing legislators and the remaining 30 held by pan-democratic, localist or centrist members. Because amending the Basic Law requires two-thirds of the vote in the LegCo, there are fears that if the pan-democratic camp lost the veto power it has long-held by having more than one-third of the seats, then the pro-Beijing conservatives would move to pass more draconian national security measures sought by Beijing.

More than just holding the line in parliament, Pepper suggests the by-elections could be a critical signal to Beijing of the level of support for the anti-China groups, from the younger more hardline localists to the older traditional pan-democratic politicians.

“If they can win back those 10 seats, that would be a good indication that the Hong Kong public is behind them and then maybe Beijing is going to pay some heed,” Pepper says.

She firmly stops short of describing herself as optimistic and says her view is based on an assumption that the pan-democrats will “become smarter.”

“There is a new awareness that you must not compete with one another,” she says. “Debating each other is okay, but when the crunch comes at election time you have to all pull together and not divide the vote in such a way that you actually cede the seat to your real opposition.”

Still, Pepper acknowledges that beyond showing unity to gain victory at the polls, the democratic politicians will need to offer something of an olive branch to Beijing.

Xi Jinping, in a televised address after swearing in new Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam in Hong Kong on July 1, warned against anyone endangering Hong Kong's Constitution or using the city "to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland.”

“It is unprecedented what Hong Kong pan-democrats would have to do to achieve what I’m saying might work,” she says. “They have to say specifically, ‘We don’t want independence, we want to redefine self-determination in our way,’ to maintain the rights and freedoms that they now have.”

“I also don’t know if Beijing will ‘see the light’ to acquiesce enough to be able to make the system work.”

However, while there is a view that Beijing will see any leniency given to Hong Kong as a non-starter given the message it could send to other democracy-seeking Chinese, Pepper suggests otherwise.

“Beijing wants Hong Kong to be peaceful, to be a success. Beijing wants to be able to continue to say, 'one-country, two-systems' is a success.”

Editor: Olivia Yang