Nov. 7, 2016 12:52 p.m. ET
BEIJING—China’s Communist Party leadership delivered a sharp warning to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp, taking aim at any officials deemed to defy the central government’s authority in the semiautonomous city.
In effectively barring two would-be Hong Kong lawmakers from taking their seats because they had insulted China, top legislators in Beijing invoked a national-security provision in Hong Kong’s miniconstitution to warn any lawmaker, senior civil servant or judicial officer against flouting their oath of office, which pledges allegiance to China.
Officials from the National People’s Congress Standing Committee justified their ruling Monday as necessary to curb “separatist” threats in Hong Kong, where dismay over heavy-handed Chinese rule flared into mass protests in 2014.
Critics said the move was one of Beijing’s most aggressive interventions into Hong Kong’s semiautonomy and rule of law that have underpinned the former British colony’s economic success. On Sunday, thousands took to the streets in the city to protest Beijing’s decision to weigh in on the controversy around the two local politicians.
Some Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmakers and political scientists say Beijing’s ruling lumps together a broad spectrum of voices for greater autonomy under a pro-independence banner that’s characterized as a threat to China’s unity—adding to central government efforts to stifle dissent in the city.
Warnings about the separatism threat are “just a red herring,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “This is to justify draconian tactics against the broader pan-democracy coalition and squeeze the public sphere in Hong Kong…under the pretext of preserving national sovereignty.”
Hong Kong has largely administered itself since returning to Chinese rule in 1997, thanks to a governing charter—the Basic Law—that accords the city a large degree of political autonomy as well as its own currency and judiciary. Even so, Beijing retains the power to issue binding interpretations on the charter, which it had exercised only four times before Monday.
The latest ruling stemmed from a dispute over whether the two Hong Kong politicians, democratically elected to the city’s legislature in September, can retake their oaths of office. The pair’s efforts to swear in as lawmakers had been suspended, pending Hong Kong legal proceedings, after they modified their oaths to pledge to defend a “Hong Kong nation,” while displaying a banner stating “Hong Kong is not China.”
Standing Committee Deputy Secretary-General Li Fei, speaking to reporters Monday, angrily denounced the pair as “traitors,” saying their display during their swearing-in attempt—including their use of a derogatory Japanese term for China—was “abominable.”
Mr. Li read passages from a history of Hong Kong that described nurses being raped and doctors being stabbed to death during the Japanese invasion in 1941. He said those who supported “national and ethnic traitors” becoming members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council “are occupying the same position as the fascists did back then.”
Mr. Li espoused a broad definition of what constitutes “separatist” advocacy, saying it includes calls for Hong Kong’s self-determination—a position some pro-democracy politicians say means demanding more freedoms from Beijing but not independence.
Such rhetoric suggests that Beijing is seizing on the oath-taking controversy to add pressure on more moderate political voices in Hong Kong, according to Claudia Mo, a lawmaker from the city’s pro-democracy Civil Party.
“Ever since the Umbrella Movement, Beijing has decided that Hong Kong is uncontrollable,” Ms. Mo said, referring to the 2014 pro-democracy protests. “The writing was on the wall.”
Beijing’s approach risks blowback, political observers say, potentially by galvanizing segments of Hong Kong society—particularly younger residents—around the pro-democracy camp. But the cost of inaction may be even greater for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has honed an image as a firm nationalist and strong-arm leader, according to Mr. Lam, the Hong Kong academic.
In a document explaining Monday’s ruling, the Standing Committee said that advocacy of Hong Kong independence violates a provision in the Basic Law known as Article 23, which calls on Hong Kong authorities to enact laws prohibiting “treason, secession, sedition [and] subversion” against the central government. The city has yet to pass such laws; an attempt to do so in 2003 was withdrawn following mass public protests.
The Standing Committee’s comments are “a reminder from Beijing that Hong Kong can’t indefinitely postpone the enactment of its own security laws,” said Rao Geping, a law professor at Peking University who is also a member of the NPC’s Basic Law Committee.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying appeared to admit as much, telling reporters on Monday that new concerns about independence advocacy have given greater urgency to the need to enact laws implementing Article 23. He didn’t elaborate.
Legal scholars say the Hong Kong government may face fresh public opposition should it renew attempts to pass national-security laws. A potential workaround for Beijing is to use its powers to indirectly shape Hong Kong law, as it did Monday, according to Alvin Cheung, a doctoral student of authoritarian legal regimes at New York University.
“Beijing is now equating analytically distinct concepts” like self-determination and preservation of Hong Kong’s semiautonomy with calls for independence and threats to national security, Mr. Cheung said. Fears over Hong Kong independence are “being used as a pretext to entrench political control.”
—Ned Levin in Hong Kong contributed to this article.
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