If you can’t bear to think about tomorrow’s election, and what will happen to the ninth seat of the supreme court if the Republicans hold control of the Senate, and if you would rather hear about another country’s impending constitutional crisis, let me present you with the latest goings on in Hong Kong.
In 1997, Hong Kong was “handed over” back to China, with the agreement that it would retain a “high degree of autonomy” until 2047, and that there would be elections with universal suffrage by 2017. Hong Kong kept (and will keep until 2047) its own legal system and its own currency, Hong Kong citizens have their passport, and a mini-constitution, called “basic law” was drafted to outline the working of its own political system.
In the 1997 system, Hong Kong is governed by a Chief Executive, who is elected in a system that gives votes to constituencies such as business associations, as well, with a smaller weight, to popular vote. The Legislative Council (Legco) is similarly elected in a way in which some members reflect the public’s vote and other are appointed by business and trade groups. The system guarantees a pro-Beijing chief executive and a majority of pro-Beijing representatives in the Legco.
In 2012, legislature was passed that would have introduced “patriotic” (pro-PRC) propaganda in K-12 education. The move produced an uproar among student groups, which coalesced under the umbrella of the Scholarism student association, and which led to huge demonstrations, which in turn led the Hong Kong government to shelve the patriotic education initiative.
In 2014, a long-running process to decide how universal suffrage was going to be implemented in the 2017 Chief Executive election, yielded a proposal in which only Beijing-approved candidates could run for office, thus negating the purpose of having elections in the first place. A broad protest movement emerged, including both Scholarism students and veterans of the pro-democracy movement that had existed since 1997. Outrage at the police response to early protests led to large popular protests that turned the center of Hong Kong into an occupied zone, where thousands of people pitched tents and stayed for weeks.
Eventually the movement failed to win any concessions, the occupation ended, but a new generation of Hong Kong young people became involved in politics and in the pro-democracy movement like never before. Scholarism dissolved as a student group, and reformed as a political party called Demosisto, and a number of other pro-democracy parties arose, including Youngspiration, which has an explicit pro-autonomy platform.
In the last September election, Nathan Law Kwun-chung became the youngest person to win a seat in Legco, running for Demosisto, and two Younsgpiration members, Sixtus “Baggio” Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching, also won seats, among other pro-democracy representatives.
On October 4, Joshua Wong, the teenage former Scholarism leader and current Demosisto member, was detained in Thailand on his way to speak at a University in Bangkok, and deported back to Hong Kong, under pressure from China, highlighting how much the PRC feels threatened by the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement.
On October 12, the swearing-in ceremony of the elected Legco members took place. If you look at the video halfway down this article, you will see “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-Hung come to the lectern with a yellow umbrella, the symbol of the 2014 protests, and a copy of the election law, which he proceeds to shred; at the end of the video you see Nathan Law make a speech after his swearing-in, and, in the middle, there are Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching. They each approach the lectern with a banner that says “Hong Kong is not China,” and then recite the oath in English (the other option is do so in Cantonese). In the oath, legislators swear allegiance to the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China,” and they both pronounce China as “Chee-na.” The officer presiding the swearing-in refuses the recognizes their oath as valid.
Here is where things get complicated. “Chee-na” is how the Japanese called China during WW2, and it is considered an offensive slur in the Mainland. Leung and Yau, apparently quite disingenuously, insist that they just have poor English pronunciation, and they have refused to apologize. Meanwhile, they have twice shown up at Legco meetings to repeat their swearing-in, which the presiding officer has refused to do. Instead, the government asked the Hong Kong supreme court to rule on whether by having “refused to take the oath” (a rather questionable interpretation of the event) Leung and Yau should vacate their seats.
So we come to the constitutional crisis: before the Hong Kong supreme court ruled on the matter, the legislative branch of the PRC stepped in yesterday, to rule against Leung and Yau, producing an interpretation of the basic law suggesting that all pro-autonomy legislators could be stripped of their post. They did so because the PRC legislature is indeed supposed to be the ultimate interpreter of the meaning of the basic law, but this is only the second time since 1997 that it has exercised this prerogative, and the first time that it has done for such an incendiary matter. This could be the beginning of the end of the autonomy of Hong Kong’s judiciary system, which so far was never doubted, as well as the end of the remaining semblance of democracy in Hong Kong’s political system.
Protests have already started.