Fifteen pro-democracy lawmakers announced their resignations from Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo) on Tuesday in protest at the ouster of four of their colleagues following an edict from Beijing.
Chanting "Go Hong Kong!" and "We stand together!," the lawmakers held a joint press conference to announce their resignation, leaving just two opposition voices to face off against pro-China members of LegCo.
The move came after the Hong Kong government announced it was stripping Alvin Yeung, Kwok Ka-ki, and Dennis Kwok of the Civic Party, and Kenneth Leung from the Professional Commons party, of their LegCo seats following a decision by the standing committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing.
The decision empowered the administration of chief executive Carrie Lam to summarily dismiss the four from LegCo, as they had "failed to meet the statutory requirements and conditions" expected under their oaths of allegiance.
Similar claims have been used to disqualify a number of pro-democracy candidates and to strip six pro-democracy members of their LegCo seats in recent years.
"The democratic camp has decided to stand together with all of our colleagues who have been disqualified," Democratic Party chair and pro-democracy camp convenor Wu Chi-wai told the news conference.
"We will not be discouraged, and we will stick to our beliefs because we know that the fight for democracy isn't going to be won overnight," he said. "We are sure to find a new path and will continue to move forward on the path of democratic resistance."
Yeung told reporters that the city looked set to take a "bumpy, difficult, and challenging road," while Dennis Kwok linked the decision to expel him to filibustering during his chairmanship of LegCo's powerful House Committee, from which he was physically ousted in May and replaced with a pro-China chairperson.
"They threatened to disqualify me, they criticized me," Kwok said in comments reported by government broadcaster RTHK. "I said that if observing due process, protecting the systems and functions, and fighting for democracy and human rights leads means that I am disqualified, it would be my honor, and I say the same today."
He said the summary ouster of the four without even going through the courts was in breach of Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and a failure to observe due process.No distinction left
Kwok Ka-ki said the move marked an end to any meaningful distinction between Hong Kong, which was promised the continuation of its traditional freedoms until at least 2047, and the rest of mainland China.
"As of today, one country, two systems no longer exists," he said.
Ma Ngok, politics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), said the decision had set a precedent for the authorities to disqualify any LegCo member they don't like in future.
"Previous disqualifications went through a certain legal process, but this time, they disqualified four people after Carrie Lam made the request, and the NPC standing committee pronounced some rules and principles," Ma told RFA.
"This is very serious, because we know that the central government can now disqualify elected LegCo members whenever it likes," he said.
Lam told reporters after the decision was announced: "We could not allow members of a Legislative Council who have been judged in accordance with the law that they could not fulfill the requirement and the prerequisite for serving on the Legislative Council to continue to operate in the Legislative Council."
She said her administration had "sought a decision" from the NPC standing committee to enable the lawmakers' ouster, but denied LegCo would now only function to rubber stamp Hong Kong government proposals.
"That certainly would not happen," she said.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party's representative office in Hong Kong said the city must be governed by patriots, state news agency Xinhua reported.
"The legal effect and authority of relevant decisions brook no challenge," the office was quoted as saying.
"To be a patriot loving both the country and Hong Kong is a political ethic that must be firmly upheld by everyone in public office," it said.More sanctions seen
The ouster of the four lawmakers came as the U.S. announced it was targeting more Chinese and Hong Kong officials for sanctions linked to the crackdown on dissent in the city.
Hong Kong Baptist University politics professor Kenneth Chan said the latest decision would encourage other countries to follow suit, and for the U.S. to step up sanctions.
"By using such measures to eliminate freedom and democracy in Hong Kong, they are giving ammunition to governments around the world that are already concerned about Hong Kong," Chan told RFA on Tuesday. "In the case of the United States, I believe it will only consolidate bipartisan support ... and there will be more sanctions against Hong Kong officials."
In Washington, the Hong Kong Democracy Council lobby group said the NPC and Lam had now officially announced the demise of Hong Kong's political system.
"With today's vote and the immediate disqualifications of four opposition lawmakers, the CCP is telling the world that, not only do they fully control the chief executive and her administration, but they are now extending that absolute control over the legislature," the group said in a statement posted on Facebook.
"There will be zero tolerance for opposition voices in this version of Hong Kong," it said.Reported by Chan Chun-ho, Lau Siu-fung, Lu Xi, and Tseng Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese and Mandarin Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.