Nearly three years after sweeping pro-democracy protests filled the streets of Hong Kong, a local court delivered the struggling movement a severe blow on Friday, removing four legislators from office and assuring China greater influence over the city’s government.
The pro-democracy lawmakers were dismissed from the Hong Kong Legislative Council because they had used unacceptable words or even dubious tones in taking oaths of office that require declarations of loyalty to China. The ruling means that democracy advocates in the semiautonomous city’s legislature will no longer have enough votes to block legislation from their pro-Beijing counterparts.
“Voters entrusted us with the task of monitoring the government,” said Leung Kwok-hung, one of those unseated. “We’ve lost that power.”
Hong Kong has been rattled by episodes that have raised fears that China is reaching deeper into the city to enforce its will. A bookseller who sold lurid titles about China’s leaders was abducted and taken to mainland China. Xiao Jianhua, a prominent billionaire who grew up in China, was snatched from a high-end hotel and brought to the mainland.
And when President Xi Jinping of China visited Hong Kong two weeks ago for the 20th anniversary of its return to Chinese sovereignty, he mixed reassurances about the city’s special status with an unmistakable warning not to test Beijing’s will.
Since 1997, China’s economy has become less dependent on Hong Kong, while the territory’s prosperity has become more entangled with the mainland. As the political and economic power imbalance grows, and Hong Kong is drawn tighter into China’s orbit, Beijing’s leaders are less willing to offer Hong Kong the same degree of deference they once showed it.
But through it all, people in Hong Kong have been comforted by the fact that the city has its own legal system ” based on British common law, unlike China’s ” that is proudly independent. That legal system remains robust, and it is one reason investment flows to Hong Kong. But Friday’s ruling will deepen worries that Chinese influence is weakening judicial protections.
Since pro-democracy protesters occupied major streets in Hong Kong for months in 2014 ” a movement that came to be known as the Umbrella Revolution” Mr. Xiâ’s government has sought to strengthen its grip on the city. But the democratic lawmakers held enough seats in the legislature to frustrate the city’s pro-Beijing administration with filibustering and veto power over bills introduced by pro-Beijing lawmakers.
The court ruling was “a disturbing and ominous development,” said Willy Lam, a political analyst and adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Like many critics of the decision, he suggested that the judge had bent over backward to create a decision pleasing to Beijing.
“It’s a direct interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs, a breach of both its judicial independence and separation of powers,” Mr. Lam said.
The ruling could galvanize opposition groups in Hong Kong. On Friday night, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Legislative Council, a concrete and glass edifice near Victoria Harbor, to denounce the decision.
But for now, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy parties have been forced into retreat after a buoyant showing in local elections last year, and some of the lawmakers who were removed may privately rue turning their oath-taking into protests.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty from British rule in 1997. Under terms agreed upon by London and Beijing, Hong Kong retained its own legal system, as well as the Legislative Council.
When their protest movement in 2014 failed to bring about freer local elections, Hong Kong’s democracy campaigners set their sights on maintaining enough members in the council to thwart policies they saw as weakening the city’s separate status.
The voters did not disappoint. In September, people turned up at polling stations in record numbers, electing many of the protesters who led rallies and spent nights in tents.
It was a triumphant moment for the activists, and the message was clear: Hong Kong people reject Chinese encroachment on their city’s freedoms. The next month, in the grand chamber of the Legislative Council, the newly elected legislators took the oath of office.
That’s when the troubles began.
First, the authorities came for the separatists. In November, the Chinese government took the extraordinary step of blocking Sixtus Leung, known as Baggio, and Yau Wai-ching, advocates for an independent Hong Kong, from assuming office as legislators, ostensibly because they inserted anti-China snubs into their oaths of office.
It did so by issuing a legal interpretation of the Basic Law, the charter ensuring that Hong Kong is governed according to a “one country, two systems” principle and that the judiciary remains independent for at least half a century from when the city returned to Chinese rule. The interpretation orders that legislators who deliver an oath in an “insincere or undignified manner” must be barred from office and not be given a chance to do it again.
The purge continued on Friday. The court removed the four additional legislators based on the interpretation and precedent set in the removal of Mr. Leung and Ms. Yau, arguing that they, too, had failed to take the oath properly.
The removed legislators include Nathan Law, a leader of the 2014 protests who later founded the party Demosisto with fellow protester Joshua Wong.
“It’s flagrant political suppression by the government,” Mr. Law said. “I had read the oath completely, and the Legislative Council approved it. It only became an issue after Beijing’s interpretation.”
Mr. Law, 24, had begun his oath saying he would “never serve a regime that murders its own people” and read the Cantonese word for “China” with an upward inflection, as if asking a question. He was the youngest person ever to win a legislative seat.
“By adopting a rising intonation, Mr. Law was objectively expressing a doubt on or disrespect of the status of the People’s Republic of China as Hong Kong’s legitimate sovereign country,” the judgement said.
The three other legislators who were unseated, Leung Kwok-hung, Lau Siu-lai and Edward Yiu, had delivered their oaths with various displays of defiance, including by reading extremely slowly, inserting words calling for democracy and displaying props. Likewise, their oaths were declared invalid by the court, and they have been asked to pack up in two weeks.
The four disqualified legislators may not be the last to be removed, since at least four other pro-democracy legislators used props or made defiant speeches before or after delivering the oath of office.
“They played with fire and got burned,” said Priscilla Leung, vice chairwoman of the pro-Beijing party Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong.
Ms. Leung told reporters she might introduce a bill to amend legislative rules to prevent filibustering by opposition legislators, though she declined to offer a timeline. “We’ve been discussing that since I entered the Legislative Council in 2008, but we hadn’t had enough votes.”