District councilors in Hong Kong face an uncertain future as Beijing continues to purge the city’s political system

Hong Kong government revealed a plan to gazette a bill later this week that will require all district councilors to pledge allegiance to the city’s mini-constitution. The move was viewed by many as Beijing’s latest crackdown on the pro-democracy camp in the city. One of the district councilors that is expected to lose his seat after the bill is passed said the government’s goal is to wipe out the opposition forces.

One day after a top Chinese official laid out Beijing’s plan to launch electoral reforms in Hong Kong, the city’s government revealed details of a bill that will require all district councilors in Hong Kong to pledge allegiance to the city’s government and mini-constitution.

According to Hong Kong’s Secretary for Mainland and Constitutional Affairs Eric Tsang, politicians deemed insincere would be blocked from office. “The law will fulfill the constitutional responsibility of the government,” Tsang said. “You cannot say that you are patriotic but you do not love the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party or you do not respect it — this does not make sense. Patriotism is holistic love.”

Any district councilor who fails to pass the loyalty test will be sent to court for the formal process of disqualification and banned from participating in elections for five years. Four pro-democracy district councilors were named as the ones that would lose their seats once the law comes into effect.

Fergus Leung, one of the four district councilors named by authorities, said the government’s revelation on Tuesday was an expected result as several district councilors including himself were disqualified last year while trying to be nominated for the legislative council election.

“We knew it’s possible that the government would use different kinds of measures to remove us from our offices as district councilors,” Leung said. “The outcome sends a signal that Beijing is no longer going to allow any kind of opposition in Hong Kong’s ruling system, and pro-democracy parties in Hong Kong will find it hard to get into elections or even get elected in the end.”

Another pro-democracy district councilor Debby Chan said since the national security law came into effect last year, district councilors in Hong Kong were expecting the government to shift its focus of crackdown to them.

“After the Hong Kong government postponed the legislative council election last year, the council has become dead to many people in Hong Kong,” Chan said. “We know district council would become one of the battlegrounds. For the Hong Kong government, even if they don’t dare to disqualify all of us, the easiest way for them to sort out who are the good and bad democrats is by tightening the rules regarding oath-taking.”

Chan said after the government revealed the details on Tuesday, district councilors have begun to talk about how to respond. However, they haven’t been able to reach a consensus. “Once the law comes into effect, disrespecting the oath could become a criminal offense, so many district councilors have their own considerations,” Chan said.

“It is obvious that the government is trying to eliminate district councilors who are more vocal, so even if I want to keep staying in my role, people around me have been telling me that being a district councilor under the current climate in Hong Kong has become a risky choice.”

Kenneth Chan, an associate professor at the Department of Government & International Studies at the Hong Kong Baptist University, said the details revealed on Tuesday show that the Hong Kong government will keep purging the pro-democracy camp. “Hammering out a ‘loyal’ opposition is the main point, but the power to decide who’s loyal and not is controlled by the government,” Chan said.

“The government’s red line keeps changing”

Fergus Leung thinks that district councilors shouldn’t spend too much time wondering how to avoid being disqualified once the law comes into effect, because the government’s red line keeps changing, making it hard for citizens to determine what’s on the regime’s mind.

“If we try to comply with the rules revealed by them, I think it’s actually meaningless,” he said. “The signal is clear, which is that the government will not allow any kind of opposition, especially people who support the idea of democracy and freedom. We should find ways to continue our struggle and continue the fight for democracy in the future.”

Since participating in elections is no longer the viable way to continue the pro-democracy movement, Leung thinks unions, student bodies, and other organizations in civil society should play the important roles of gathering like-minded individuals.

“I think in the future, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement will be more unpredictable, because after the end of elections and resisting through joining the ruling system, it will become harder for the Hong Kong government to predict civil society’s next move by tracking prominent political figures,” he said.

Leung pointed out that in a world without any representatives or district councilors from the opposition, every Hong Konger has the chance to become the leader of Hong Kong’s next movement. However, it will also be difficult for the pro-democracy camp to organize movements in Hong Kong.

“Since 2019, district councilors have been very important channels to hold Hong Kong people together,” he said. “It is a bottom-up approach as we try to gather public opinions at the district level so we can form greater opinions and voice from Hong Kong people.”

“As we won’t have representatives at different levels of Hong Kong’s political scene, it will be more difficult for Hong Kong people to gather their power. I always think that Hong Kong’s democratic movement will continue, but I also think everyone in the pro-democracy camp needs to determine the next acceptable move.”

Even though many protesters have been arrested and political figures have been disqualified or prosecuted, Leung still thinks the world should try to view Hong Kong’s future with some positivity.

“In 2019, we faced a lot of obstacles during the anti-extradition bill movement, but Hong Kong people could always find ways to thrive through these difficulties,” Leung said. “We have to understand that in a democratic movement, there will be ups and downs. We might not be able to recreate the things that we saw in 2019, because we are facing a lot of oppression. one thing I can be assured is that as long as Hong Kong people maintain their faith and willingness to resist, the future of Hong Kong is always optimistic.”

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.