Hong Kong’s legislature has been split in a standoff between the pro-democracy and pro-Beijing camps, driven by a rare dispute over the legitimacy of a committee’s leadership.

Democrats argued that lawmaker James To had the right to preside over the committee to vet an extradition bill proposed by the government. But the pro-Beijing camp said lawmaker Abraham Shek should take over after he gained the written support of 36 lawmakers during the weekend.

“In my view, [Abraham Shek] did not replace me via a legitimate written circular,” To told reporters.

Abraham Shek
Abraham Shek. Photo: LegCo.

Democrats have been filibustering in an effort to stall the extradition proposal. The bill, if passed, would allow case-by-case transfers of fugitives to jurisdictions with no pre-existing agreements with Hong Kong – including China. The legal sectorjournalistsforeign politicians and businesses have raised concerns over how the law may put local residents at risk.

On Monday, a bills committee meeting originally scheduled for 4:30pm went off the rails after the pro-Beijing camp abstained en masse. Shek, who claimed he had authority to decide the schedule, said the meeting had been rescheduled for 9am on Saturday, May 11.

Over 20 pro-democracy lawmakers went ahead with the Monday meeting as planned, though they were the only ones present.

The secretariat sided with the pro-Beijing camp after a chaotic House Committee meeting over the weekend. The committee, which has a pro-Beijing majority, voted to issue a set of guidelines to oust To.

James To
James To presides over a bills committee meeting with the pro-Beijing camp absent. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

With the legislature’s staff – including secretaries, advisors and technicians – missing from the Monday meeting, democrats took their own minutes and created their own video broadcasts.

Lawmaker Eunice Yung from the pro-Beijing New People’s Party briefly interrupted the proceedings, saying that the meeting was like “children playing with sand” and had no legal effect. She stood in front of the chairperson’s seat in protest, but left after a few minutes.

With their opponents away, democrats unanimously voted for the bills committee to be headed by lawmaker James To, with Dennis Kwok as his deputy.

The democrat-led committee then passed a non-binding motion calling on the government to withdraw the bill.

Eunice Yung protest
Eunice Yung said the bills committee meeting was ‘illegal.’ Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

After the meeting ended, To and Kwok defended the legitimacy of the proceedings. To said the committee will meet again on Saturday morning, which would overlap with the plans announced by Shek.

“There is a very unfortunate situation, where the LegCo Secretariat did not provide support to our meeting… This was a right and proper meeting, and the Secretariat didn’t even give us a microphone,” To said.

“Government officials said they were in a hurry, but this time they did not show up… This is regrettable and I hope they will appear on Saturday,” he added.

Seniority dispute

Pro-Beijing camp convenor Martin Liao dismissed the Monday meeting as just an unofficial “gathering” of democrats.

This type of gathering had “dangerous” ramifications, he added: “If the pan-democrats can do this, the pro-Beijing camp can also do this. Does this mean, if we are dissatisfied, we can occupy a meeting room and make decisions on our own?”

dennis kwok james to
Lawmakers Dennis Kwok and James To. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

In the meantime, Legislative Council President Andrew Leung called for “calm” and asked lawmakers not to act impulsively, adding that he believed the secretariat remained neutral.

A bills committee – responsible for vetting the details of a proposed bill – typically elects its chairperson and vice-chairperson within the first 30 minutes of its first meeting. Before a formal leadership is elected, the committee is temporarily led by the most senior lawmaker present.

As the most senior lawmaker, To had been tasked with presiding over meetings to discuss the extradition bill. However, the pro-Beijing camp accused him of filibustering after the committee failed to elect its leadership after two meetings.

After the issue was brought to the House Committee on Saturday, the Legislative Council Secretariat issued a circular asking whether the committee’s members agreed to unseat To. The pro-democracy camp called the move as a “coup,” adding that the secretariat had abused its power in issuing the circular without having any formal discussion.

bills committee meeting
Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Earlier on Monday, democrats demanded a meeting with Secretary General of the LegCo Secretariat Kenneth Chen. Around 10 lawmakers waited at his office for 45 minutes but Chen’s staff said he was unavailable.

A legal challenge may also be on the cards, as democrats threatened to take the secretariat to court.

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Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.