Democrats in HK fear disqualifications ahead of key polls

Mr Alvin Yeung (centre) being restrained by security officers at a Legislative Council meeting last month.
Mr Alvin Yeung (centre) being restrained by security officers at a Legislative Council meeting last month.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG • As the leader of one of the largest pro-democracy parties in Hong Kong's legislature, Mr Alvin Yeung could make history if the city's opposition wins an unprecedented majority in September elections.

Or the 39-year-old lawyer could find himself disqualified before the campaign even starts.

Mr Yeung is among prospective candidates accused by the Chinese authorities of behaviour that opposition politicians fear could be used to bar them from running or expel them after the vote.

After rejecting a half dozen "localist" candidates for seeking independence from China four years ago, the government and its supporters have criticised activists by name for a growing range of actions that could run afoul of the new national security legislation and other laws.

Last Friday, for instance, China's top agency for Hong Kong accused Mr Yeung of "glorifying illegal behaviour" in a statement denouncing several other high-profile politicians. He was also featured on decks of novelty playing cards handed out in the city showing pictures of prominent opposition figures superimposed against prison bars and listing their "crimes".

"No one in the opposition can guarantee that they would be able to get into the race," said Mr Yeung, whose Civic Party holds five of the Legislative Council's 70 seats. "The only thing we can do is to stick to our own principles."

The push has cast fresh doubt over democracy advocates' hopes of converting the enthusiasm generated by a historic wave of protests in the former British colony last year into real political power. Not only could the opposition use the council to block Chief Executive Carrie Lam's agenda, it could also theoretically force her to resign by repeatedly rejecting her budget proposals.

How the election unfolds may have big consequences for the future of Hong Kong, which has become a key friction point among China, the US and Britain.

The process is unfolding against the backdrop of a presidential vote in the US which President Donald Trump has sought to run against China, announcing last month that he would "begin the process" of revoking special trade privileges for the Asian financial centre because of its political autonomy.

The United States gave Hong Kong its special status after China agreed with Britain to preserve the city's capitalist economy and Common Law legal system until at least 2047 under a "one country, two systems" framework. Mr Trump levied his threat shortly after China's National People's Congress (NPC) approved a plan to bypass Hong Kong lawmakers and impose measures to criminalise the harshest criticism of Beijing.

The legislation, which local media has said could be enacted before the Sept 6 election, is expected to provide the government sweeping powers to jail opposition figures or otherwise block them from office.

While details of the measures have yet to be made public, a similar proposal withdrawn after protests 17 years ago would allow for sentences up to life in prison for offenders convicted of crimes such as sedition and subversion. The legislation could be finalised as soon as this week's meeting of the NPC's Standing Committee.

Hong Kong's sole representative to the NPC Standing Committee Tam Yiu-chung wrote in a pro-establishment magazine this month that candidates who oppose the effort "should be disqualified".

That would rule out just about all opposition candidates, with a Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme poll on May 29 showing 96 per cent of democracy supporters are against the legislation.

"The entire democratic camp, including sitting democratic legislators, can be wiped out because all of us must have or will openly oppose the law as part of our political platform," opposition lawmaker Fernando Cheung said.

The Hong Kong Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau said in a statement last Saturday that the government would uphold residents' right to seek elected office, while noting that candidates must sign a declaration to uphold the law.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2020, with the headline 'Democrats in HK fear disqualifications ahead of key polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe