Dozens of local community politicians in Hong Kong yesterday swore a newly required loyalty oath to China, after hundreds of their colleagues quit in protest as authorities try to purge the territory of “unpatriotic” elements.
District councils are the only political office in Hong Kong where all seats are directly elected by residents.
They deal with everyday local issues like bus routes, trash collection and playgrounds, but they have also become a symbol of residents’ urge for a greater say in how Hong Kong is run.
In late 2019, toward the end of months of huge democracy protests, opposition candidates critical of China’s rule won landslide victories, hammering pro-Beijing candidates.
China has since responded with a crackdown on dissent, as well as an overhaul of the territory’s political system that reduces the number of directly elected officials and vets politicians for their perceived patriotism.
Yesterday, the first 24 councillors took the oath in a closed-door ceremony, the Hong Kong government said.
Similar ceremonies have been held for other sectors, including civil servants, government officials and lawmakers.
However, those who swear allegiance can still be disqualified. Under the new rules imposed by Beijing earlier this year, a national security committee can disqualify anyone deemed an “anti-China” element or disloyal.
“If we have doubts on certain councilors’ oath-taking, and could not completely trust whether they have pledged loyalty and allegiance, we will give them the opportunity to explain... If their oaths are invalid in the end, they will be disqualified,” Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) said earlier this week.
About 180 district councilors are expected to take oaths in the coming weeks, and those who refuse to attend would lose their seats.
However, a majority of the elected councilors have quit rather than adhere to the vetting process. So far, 260 councilors — more than half of the 452 elected members — have resigned.
Oath-taking “has become the regime’s tool to keep you on a leash. They want to eliminate the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong,” said former Sai Kung District councilor Debby Chan (陳嘉琳), who resigned in July.
Since the 2019 protests, China has imposed a National Security Law that criminalized much dissent and began remolding Hong Kong in its own authoritarian image. Several district councilors are among the more than 60 people who have been charged with national security crimes, the vast majority for their political views.
In the latest prosecution, three leading members of the group behind Hong Kong’s annual Tiananmen vigils appeared in court.
On Thursday, police raided a museum they ran dedicated to the victims of Beijing’s deadly 1989 crackdown.
The three leaders were hit with a subversion charge after they refused to cooperate with a national security investigation.
Before her court appearance, barrister Chow Hang-tung (鄒幸彤), one of those charged, wrote on Facebook: “If they have written the script to eliminate our freedom, then obedience and cooperation will only help them reach their goal quicker and easier.”
In court, she told the judge that the charges were “absurd.”
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