Another 8 Hong Kong lawmakers may lose seats after court asked to review oath taking

A women walking past a sign in the Legislative Council Building in Hong Kong on Nov 7, 2016.
A women walking past a sign in the Legislative Council Building in Hong Kong on Nov 7, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG - The number of pro-democracy lawmakers elected to Hong Kong's Legislative Council (Legco) who may lose their seats has grown to 10, after a court was asked to rule whether eight people did not make proper oaths of office.

Earlier, two legislators had infuriated the Chinese government when they inserted a derogatory term for China into their oaths, taken last month, and pledged loyalty to the "Hong Kong nation".

The actions of the pair, Mr Sixtus Leung and Ms Yau Wai Ching, prompted Beijing to announce new guidelines on Monday (Nov 7) specifying that oaths must be made "sincerely and solemnly" and be read accurately, with no chance of retaking them.

On Sunday, news of the impending ruling from Beijing set off large street protests in Hong Kong, ending with a clash between the police and protesters in which officers in riot gear used pepper spray on demonstrators.

After the ruling, hundreds of lawyers, concerned that the Chinese government was undermining the court system, marched through the city's central business district on Tuesday.

Even though Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997, has considerable autonomy, China can issue interpretations of the territory's mini constitution, known as the Basic Law, that must be taken into account by Hong Kong's judges.

On Wednesday, according to filings made to Hong Kong's High Court, a member of a taxi driver's association applied for a judicial review concerning the Legco's decision to accept the oaths from six of the eight lawmakers, and to let the two others retake theirs after their first try was rejected.

In an interview with the local RTHK public broadcasting service, Mr Robin Cheng Yuk Kai, a former chairman of the Taxi Drivers and Operators Association, showed his application for the review of the eight lawmakers.

It was not the first time Mr Cheng had used the judicial process to help forward the interests of Beijing. In late 2014, his group successfully sued to have an injunction issued to clear portions of a major Hong Kong thoroughfare that was the scene of pro-democracy demonstrations.

"The variations in their oath mean one thing, that they did not sincerely take the oath," Mr Cheng said in the interview. "If they did not sincerely swear allegiance to the country and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, how are they qualified to become Hong Kong's legislators?"

Applying for judicial review in Hong Kong is a two-step process. The court first has to give the applicant permission to go ahead with the case. Judges will determine whether the person asking for the review has "sufficient interest in the matter."

It is unclear what interest Mr Cheng has in the case, although the taxi driver's association is a corporate member of Hong Kong's transport functional constituency, a system in which trade groups are given seats on the Legislative Council.

Among the eight lawmakers named in the suit are Ms Lau Siu Lai, who read her oath slowly over more than 10 minutes, pausing after each word; Mr Nathan Law, who gave a preamble saying he couldn't be loyal to a government that "murders its own people"; and Mr Leung Kwok Hung, also known as Long Hair, who unfurled a yellow umbrella, a symbol of the 2014 protests, when he gave his oath.

Hong Kong's judicial system, inherited from the British, is known for its independence. Judges must decide how to interpret the ruling from Beijing in each of the eight cases and determine whether the ruling, which came after the oaths had already been accepted, can be applied retroactively.

Ms Yau and Mr Leung had their oaths rejected, and have not been given the opportunity to retake them.

"I don't think I have broken any law," Mr Eddie Chu Hoi Dick, one of the legislators, told reporters on Thursday. "I don't think, even after the interpretation, the law of the court of Hong Kong will do such a ridiculous decision as to disqualify me and my fellow colleagues in the chamber.

"This is political repression from Beijing to the whole society, not only to me," he said.

China has strongly suggested that Monday's ruling was aimed at more people than Mr Leung and Ms Yau.

On Wednesday, one Beijing official said as many as 15 lawmakers risked losing their seats over improper oaths, while another detailed what kind of oaths would be considered "insincere", The South China Morning Post reported.