The disqualification of democracy activist Agnes Chow Ting from running in the Hong Kong legislature’s by-election is “outrageous”, a world renowned democracy scholar said on Monday, warning the move symbolised “another step towards the evisceration” of the city’s high degree of autonomy from China.
Professor Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University in the United States, also told the Post that the idea of self-determination could be interpreted in many ways and did not necessarily mean national independence – in contrast to the interpretation by some mainland scholars and Beijing-friendly lawmakers.
Hong Kong election officials triggered a political storm on Saturday when they barred Chow, 21, from standing in the March 11 poll on the grounds that her party, Demosisto, had called for self-determination for the city, which they claimed deviated from “one country, two systems”, the principle that the city can maintain a high degree of autonomy after it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
The returning officer for Electoral Affairs Commission, Anne Teng, who oversees election procedure, did not seek clarification from Chow before ruling her nomination invalid.
“I think the disqualification is outrageous,” Diamond said in an email. “It is another step in the escalating pattern of violation of basic democratic principles, in this case, the freedom to contest for office.”
It was “bad enough” that Hongkongers could not freely elect their city’s leader, he said, and now the local government – and the Beijing authorities behind them – are determined to also vet who can stand for the legislature and increasingly incline to exhaust means to limit the representation of views they dislike.
The disqualification caused an outcry from opposition members and some legal scholars, including Michael Davis, a former law professor at the University of Hong Kong, who said the move put the government on a “slippery slope”.
Diamond agreed, adding the end of that slope is the demise of the limited degree of democracy that Hong Kong has enjoyed.
“The irony here is that the authorities claim these disqualifications are to defend one country, two systems,” he said. “But, in fact, they represent another step towards the evisceration of that principle, under which Hong Kong must retain its autonomy and at least its limited freedom.”
But Diamond called on the young activists to handle the disqualification in a nimble and creative way, such as backing an independent candidate and taking the exact oath of office in future to lay the issue aside. Improper oath-taking was the reason six opposition lawmakers were kicked out of Legislative Council last year and the by-election will fill four of those seats.
“Martin Luther King had a saying, ‘Keep your eyes on the prize’,” Diamond said. “The prize is political power, or at least having enough of it in the [Legislative Council] to block the further deterioration of freedom and democracy in Hong Kong.”
Some mainland scholars and pro-establishment figures have argued self-determination is no different from advocating Hong Kong independence. Executive councillor and barrister Ronny Tong Ka-wah had earlier said the political philosophy of Demosisto could give the impression that it endorsed independence as one option for Hong Kong.
However, Diamond, founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, distinguished between the two ideas.
Calling for “self-determination” for Hong Kong could mean that the city should have the right to choose how it will be governed, such as how to elect its leader and the legislature that is free from Beijing’s interference, he said, adding that would be consistent with a more benign interpretation of one country, two systems that most Hongkongers and the international community have hoped would unfold.
Self-determination views could lead to by-election ban, government adviser says amid debate over Agnes Chow’s Legco bid
Diamond, who visited Hong Kong in 2016, reiterated it was not politically smart or appropriate to advocate Hong Kong independence, saying that any move towards that goal would be met with force.
Separately, the 30 legal representatives sitting in the Election Committee, which picks Hong Kong’s leader, issued a joint statement on Monday, expressing deep regret and concern over the disqualification of Chow.
The lawyers pointed to the General Comment 25 adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which stipulated “political opinion may not be used as a ground to deprive any person of the right to stand for election”.
They argued the decision to use political opinion or affiliation as a ground to deprive Chow’s right to stand in election is “unreasonable, unlawful and unconstitutional”, which violates the Basic Law and the Hong Kong Bill of Rights.
They also slammed the decision for breaching the fundamental rules of natural justice as it was made without affording Chow any opportunity to make representations.
Among the legal heavyweights who have signed the statement are Edward Chan King-sang, Graham Harris, Robert Pang Yiu-hung, Civic Party’s Alan Leong Kah-kit and the newly elected Bar Association chairman Philip Dykes.