HONG KONG (Reuters) - Lawyers and politicians in Hong Kong are bracing for a broader crackdown after China’s move to effectively ban two independence-minded lawmakers, fears reinforced by senior Chinese parliamentarian Li Fei, who insisted on Beijing’s duty to assert its authority.
Before the intervention by China’s parliament on Monday, a Hong Kong court was already considering whether to bar newly elected lawmakers Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-hing, whose swearing-in ceremony was aborted after they mispronounced the oath in a way regarded as insulting to China.
Li’s justification of Beijing’s move to interpret Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution has raised fears of further action by both the city’s own government and China’s Communist Party leadership to destroy the fledgling independence movement in the former British colony.
Li said on Monday that Beijing would not “interfere” in the autonomy guaranteed under the Basic Law and the “one country, two systems” model but he did not rule out future legal action.
“Some people say the parliament should restrain itself and should not exercise its authority to the utmost,” said Li, who heads the Basic Law committee of China’s National People’s Congress.
“We say we must exercise our authority. It is our duty.”
Leung and Yau were among a group of six radical lawmakers advocating various forms of autonomy for Hong Kong, which China sees as a threat to national security.
Localists secured one in five votes in legislative elections in September - figures that shocked the mainland and Hong Kong governments alike.
Hong Kong’s jealously guarded legal independence and freedom of speech could also be casualties of any broader campaign against the movement.
“I really do fear we are seeing the start of an era of the rule of Hong Kong by decree from Beijing,” said Alan Leong, a prominent barrister and former democratic legislator, pointing to Li’s remarks.
“What will be next under the Basic Law to be challenged? ... I really feel we are now trying to hold on to words written on water.”
While Beijing has invoked its right to intervene via the Basic Law four times since the handover from Britain in 1997, this is the first time it has pre-empted local court action over local laws.
That precedent appears to have emboldened pro-Beijing lawmakers to demand that other radical activists be barred from Hong Kong’s legislature, while the city’s leader has re-floated the idea of passing long-delayed laws to toughen the city’s existing national security laws.
The legislative assistants of Leung and Yau, some of them pro-independence activists, were barred from the legislature after Monday’s ruling.
Anson Chan, the retired chief of Hong Kong’s civil service who served under both British and Chinese rule, said Monday’s move was “a first step down an extremely slippery slope”.
“There’s no end to it ... This is the worst blow yet to the whole independence of the judicial system.”
In public and private comments this week, Chinese officials have made clear their frustrations go beyond Monday’s ruling, and insist that those advocating self-determination for the territory can also be seen as separatists.
One Foreign Ministry official insisted the move would strengthen Hong Kong’s rule of law, with the Basic Law at its core.
Regina Ip, a former local government security chief turned pro-establishment lawmaker, said people must not underestimate the depth of concern in Beijing. She said the local government would be under intense pressure to follow through on Monday’s action.
“I think there is a sense among Chinese officials that the authority of the Central Government has been kept at bay by Hong Kong all these years,” Ip said.
“Some feel they have been oppressed by the Hong Kong people and haven’t been able to assert their authority as outlined in the Basic Law. That is changing.”
Additional reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Will Waterman