'Political Screening and the erosion of autonomy': New Hong Kong Watch report questions 'tainted' by-elections

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Three days before controversial by-elections in Hong Kong, Hong Kong Watch is publishing a report highlighting the ‘political screening’ of candidates and the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy through the Chinese government’s intervention. The report says that the current by-elections have been ‘tainted’ by the disqualification of candidates and lawmakers, demanding urgent attention from the international community and especially the UK Government, a guarantor of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

In a foreword to the report, Sir Malcolm Rifkind QC, a patron of Hong Kong Watch and the former United Kingdom Foreign Secretary, said: “This Report makes very disturbing reading. It demonstrates that the obligations that the Chinese Government accepted in 1997 are being eroded. The steps being taken as regards disqualification of candidates reinforce the concern that there may be a strategy to diminish Hong Kong's autonomy in a step by step process over the years.”

The report covers the ‘Oath Taking Saga’, which led to the disqualification of pro-democracy lawmakers from the Legislative Council. It argues that the Chinese government’s Interpretation of Article 104 of Basic Law, which led to the disqualifications, is an illegal infringement which undermines one-country, two-systems, and violates rights enshrined in Hong Kong’s constitution, including freedom of speech and the right to stand in election.

The report notes that the disqualification of candidates in Legislative Council elections was unprecedented before 2016 and describes the actions of the Returning Officer of the Electoral Affairs Commissions as ‘unaccountable political screening’.

Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, a patron of Hong Kong Watch and an international barrister who was Chief Prosecutor in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, said in another foreword to the report: “The people of Hong Kong have a right to freedom of thought and speech and to free engagement in the democratic process.  This Report shows why they should be able to count on support from others in the difficult work they must do to avoid a first step away from the open path of right and rights … to the dark forest in which they and their rights will be so easily consumed.”

 Edward Yiu Chung-yim, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, Lau Siu-lai & Leung Kwok-hung. Photo: South China Morning Post

Edward Yiu Chung-yim, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, Lau Siu-lai & Leung Kwok-hung. Photo: South China Morning Post

The report recommends that Hong Kong authorities consider cancelling the by-elections on 11 March, and reinstate the disqualified lawmakers. It suggests that the Hong Kong government considers establishing an independent commission regulating the confirmation and nomination process in the place of the Returning Officer. It also proposes that, following an Interpretation by the National People’s Congress, the government of Hong Kong should, within six months, publish a report on whether the interpretation is procedurally and substantively compatible with human rights provisions of the Basic Law and HKSAR Bill of Rights.

Going forward, the report calls on the Chinese government to reaffirm its commitment to the ‘one country, two systems’ framework by ensuring that all interpretations of Basic Law comply with human rights provisions within the Basic Law, and safeguarding HK’s political and legal autonomy. Finally, the report calls on the UK and the wider international community to use its voice to raise the case of disqualified candidates and the disqualified lawmakers with the government of Hong Kong and in its diplomatic relations with China.

The report highlights the concerning trend of the Chinese government’s interference in Hong Kong’s democratic process. Its publication comes two weeks after the Basic Law Committee Chairman, Li Fei controversially said that calls for ‘self-determination’ and ‘Hong Kong Independence’ were both ‘unlawful’.

Benedict Rogers, human rights activist and Hong Kong Watch’s Chair of Trustees said: “Our latest report draws on comprehensive research surrounding recent developments in Hong Kong, and is timely ahead of the March by-elections which have been tainted as a result of the political screening of candidates and lawmakers. In both cases, the disqualifications violate fundamental human rights guaranteed by Hong Kong’s Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

“Beijing’s intervention in Hong Kong’s electoral process, through its oath taking interpretation and the disqualification of candidates, is a clear breach of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle which underlies Hong Kong’s constitution. Sadly, this interference from Beijing seems to be an increasing trend, and I hope that this report from Hong Kong Watch will not only inform the international community of the concerning situation, but will also lead to constructive and effective diplomatic action to protect autonomy, democracy and rule of law in Hong Kong.”

Read the report here