BEIJING (NYTIMES) - After a succession of recent moves to crack down on democracy in Hong Kong, Beijing on Tuesday (Aug 11) appeared to show a little restraint and refrained from pushing out four of the city's opposition lawmakers.
The decision by a top legislative committee in Beijing means that the four pro-democracy lawmakers are likely to retain their seats in Hong Kong's legislature for the rest of an extended term despite being barred from seeking reelection.
Many had expected the National People's Congress Standing Committee to rule that the elected lawmakers had to go, a decision that would have been in line with Beijing's ongoing campaign to sideline the city's pro-democracy camp. Tuesday's vote indicated that officials in Beijing may have wanted to avoid triggering widespread public outrage with such an expulsion.
"From Beijing's point of view, the intention is the prevention and control of conflict and controversy, so Hong Kong can concentrate on tackling the pandemic and dealing with livelihood issues," said Prof Lau Siu Kai, a former Hong Kong government official who is now a senior Beijing adviser on Hong Kong policy.
The announcement came a day after police launched a dramatic move against critics of the government, arresting Jimmy Lai, a prominent pro-democracy media mogul, along with his two sons and four of his executives on national security charges, and raiding the offices of his newspaper. Shortly after midnight Wednesday, Lai was released from jail on bail and was met outside a police station by cheering supporters, local news media reported.
The sweep against Lai and his newspaper was the latest action demonstrating China's determination to quash dissent with an expansive national security law it imposed on the city on June 30.
Authorities have arrested young activists for posts on social media and dismissed a tenured law professor from his job at a university. In late July, they disqualified 12 pro-democracy candidates, including the four incumbent lawmakers, from running in the next legislative election. Officials cited grounds for disqualification that included objecting to the national security law.
After the government announced it would delay by a year the election that was originally scheduled for September, questions arose about the fate of the four lawmakers and whether they would be able to remain in the legislature.
The Hong Kong government turned the issue over to the standing committee of the legislature in Beijing. That committee met and voted Tuesday on a resolution that approved the extension of the Hong Kong legislature's term without making any decision regarding the four opposition lawmakers.
Beijing appeared to have decided that removing the lawmakers this month was not worth the trouble, said Prof Michael C. Davis, a retired University of Hong Kong law professor who is now a senior research scholar at Columbia University.
"They just didn't want to alienate people more and will wait until next year," Prof Davis said.
Beijing might also have wanted to avoid giving the United States another reason to attack China while relations are in a downward spiral, in part over Hong Kong. The Trump administration has sought to punish Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials for quelling pro-democracy protests, including by imposing sanctions on them.
Even with the four pro-democracy lawmakers likely staying in the legislature for the coming year, the pro-Beijing camp maintains a sizable majority.
Beijing wants democracy advocates to serve as a "loyal opposition" that keeps political debates within carefully circumscribed boundaries, Prof Lau, the adviser, said. The new security law - which imposes severe limits on some forms of political speech - could help rein in the opposition, he said.
"If they do not follow this path, they do not have any political careers in this system, they can only act as street fighters, which makes them vulnerable to punishment by the law," Prof Lau said.
There is still one possible legal threat to the continued service of the four lawmakers in the coming year. The Hong Kong government could still try to unseat them, but that now seems less likely.
Since the national security law was passed by Beijing, several countries have imposed sanctions and even suspended extradition agreements with Hong Kong.
Chinese officials have expressed support for the Hong Kong police's arrest of Lai, the media tycoon, and the raid of the offices of his newspaper, Apple Daily.
But on Tuesday, the city's residents rallied to express their support for the newspaper and Lai. The newspaper had sold out in many newsstands by early morning. Large lunch crowds formed outside a restaurant owned by one of Lai's sons, who was also detained in the sweep.
Within a day of the raid, shares of Lai's media group, Next Digital, had soared more than tenfold, as residents bought stock to show their support for the company.