Sign in / Join

Court Deals Major Blow to Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Movement

HONG KONG — In a decisive blow to Hong Kong’s democracy movement, a local court removed four elected legislators on Friday after Beijing intervened in the city’s independent legal system.

The ruling means pro-democracy activists will no longer have enough votes to block legislation from pro-Beijing lawmakers, assuring China greater influence over Hong Kong’s government at least until by-elections are held.

The removal of the lawmakers came after the Chinese government took the extraordinary step in November of blocking two separatist politicians from taking office in the legislature of this semiautonomous region, ostensibly because they inserted anti-China snubs into their oaths of office.

Beijing intervened by issuing a legal interpretation of the city’s mini-constitution: that legislators who deliver an oath in an “insincere or undignified manner” must be barred from office and not be given a chance to do it again.

The Hong Kong government, relying on the new interpretation, then sought to remove four more legislators from office, and on Friday the High Court declared their seats vacant, arguing they had failed to take the oath properly.

The decision dealt a further setback to democracy activists, who are already reeling from criminal charges over their roles in street protests in 2014 and low participation in an annual march for democracy this month.

“It’s flagrant political suppression by the government,” Nathan Law, 24, one of the lawmakers who was removed, said in an interview before the court announced its ruling. “I had read the oath completely, and the Legislative Council approved it. It only became an issue after Beijing’s interpretation.”

Mr. Law, a leader of the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests demanding freer local elections, had begun his oath saying he would “never serve a regime that murders its own people” and read the Cantonese word for “China” with an upward inflection, as if asking a question. He was the youngest person ever to win a legislative seat in an election that had a record voter turnout.

The three other legislators who were unseated, Leung Kwok-hung, Lau Siu-lai and Edward Yiu, had delivered their oaths with various displays of defiance, including by reading it extremely slowly, inserting words calling for democracy and displaying props.

Mr. Law said that his removal would cause long-lasting political and financial damage, since Demosisto, the party he founded with his fellow activist, Joshua Wong, was funded in part by his salary. “We might have to fire some people,” he said.