China’s Meddling Sparks Hong Kong Protests

Residents of Hong Kong spilled out into the streets Sunday in two separate demonstrations—one of them violent—to protest an impending ruling further restricting the city’s autonomy.

The incidents highlight Beijing’s increasingly hardline and inept handling of Hong Kong, one of China’s Special Administrative Regions.

Estimates vary, but on Sunday afternoon between 8,000 and 13,000 residents marched from the Wanchai to Central districts to protest the anticipated interpretation of the Basic Law by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. An unruly group of perhaps 4,000 gathered in front of Beijing’s Liaison Office in the Sai Wan district that evening.

The interpretation, which was issued Monday morning, prohibits two newly elected independence-minded activists from taking their seats in the Legislative Council.

When they took the oaths last month to assume their places in the legislature, Sixtus “Baggio” Leung and Yau Wai-ching of the Youngspiration party pledged allegiance to the “Hong Kong nation,” in effect denying China’s sovereignty, and displayed a banner with the words “Hong Kong is not China.”

Their oaths were rejected, but Legislative Council President Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen decided to give the pair another chance. Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s chief executive, soon instituted a court proceeding to prevent the two activists from retaking their oaths.

Beijing then signaled it would short-circuit the judicial process by having the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress issue an interpretation of the Basic Law, a Chinese statute often called Hong Kong’s “mini-constitution.” The NPC, as China’s legislature is known, has issued four interpretations of the law but never on a matter under consideration in a pending court case.

Although many in Hong Kong have criticized the “antics” of Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching, there is widespread opposition to China’s interpretation, seen as unwarranted interference in the affairs of the city. Take “Ben,” a protestor at the Wanchai-Central march, who told the South China Morning Post that he did not support the prospective legislators. “We disagree with [their] actions, but why should Beijing shut the door so fast when the court was still handling the judicial review?”

The concern of that single protestor has been echoed throughout the city’s establishment. The Hong Kong Bar Association, for instance, called an interpretation a “severe blow”  to judicial independence and said it would undermine the confidence of the international community in Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Hong Kong flourished after Britain ”handed over” the city to China in large part because Beijing promised autonomy until 2047 with its “one country, two systems” model of governance. At first, China appeared to leave Hong Kong alone. In recent years, however, meddling has severely eroded popular support for Beijing.

For instance, a NPC interpretation on the method of electing the chief executive, the city’s top official, sparked the 79-day “Occupy Central” protests of 2014. China’s harsh reaction to the massive series of demonstrations helped create an independence movement that now appears to claim the support of nearly a fifth of the population. 

Had Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching been allowed to take their seats they would have been marginalized in the 70-member LegCo, the informal name of the legislature. Now, of course, they have become popular symbols, and they will continue to bedevil Beijing.

“If they go ahead and make an interpretation tomorrow, Hong Kong people will be infuriated and this will almost certainly add to the independence movement,” said Chapman Chen, who marched on Sunday. “ ‘One country, two systems’ is an illusion—2047 has come. Hong Kong autonomy is fake.” 

Beijing can keep Leung and Yau from ever serving in the Legislative Council, but the cost for China will surely be years of resistance by a growing proportion of people determined to govern themselves.

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