Hong Kong democrats stormed out of the Legislative Council House Committee meeting on Friday calling it “illegitimate,” after pro-Beijing party leader Starry Lee asserted power as the incumbent chair to oversee proceedings.
Chaotic scenes emerged as lawmakers from two rival camps clashed over whether the DAB’s Lee or the Civic Party’s Dennis Kwok had the power to lead the committee which is set to consider the controversial national anthem law.
Kwok – the vice-chair of the last House Committee – has presided over meetings since last October. He recently came under fire by Beijing and the city’s top officials, who accused him of paralysing the legislative branch by stalling the election of the committee chair for months.
Lee, on the other hand, led the last House Committee and was set to be re-elected. External legal advice sought by the Legislative Council President Andrew Leung claimed she had the power to hold meetings to discuss “urgent and important” matters. But the pan-democrats had presented opposing opinions from other legal experts, who argued the incumbent chair had limited power, otherwise there could be “serious systemic conflict of interests.”
Lee took the chairperson’s seat in the conference room around an hour before the meeting was set to begin at 2.30 pm. Opposition legislators – including Eddie Chu, Ray Chan and Jeremy Tam – tried to break through the security cordon. They were later expelled from the meeting under Lee’s order.
Kwok had demanded that security guards to remove Lee from the chairperson’s seat, and requested that her microphone be switched off, but the council’s staffers did not respond. He later led some remaining democrats to walk out of the meeting.
14 bills processed
Lee proceeded with the meeting after the opposition camp left. She cited section 75 (2) of the Rules of Procedure, saying that she could hold office until a new chairman was elected.
“Legal advice is advice only, it is very normal to have differences in opinions. As the chairman, I’m very prudent in considering to exercise my power,” Lee said in the meeting.
“We [respect] the rule of law. If different lawmakers have different opinions, or even doubts, I know they will use other channels to follow up, including legal means,” she added.
The legislature’s legal adviser Connie Fung sided with Lee, while denying contradictions in her stance. Last October, Fung said the committee should install a chairperson first, and Lee had no power to hold the meetings. But on Friday, Fung said the long delay in electing a chair was unusual and Lee had to step up and tackle the backlog of legislative matters.
Pro-establishment lawmakers processed 14 bills and set up nine bill committees, before the meeting wrapped up at around 6 pm.
The House Committee is responsible for scrutinising bills, but some fear that – under the leadership of the pro-establishment camp – the committee will quickly allow controversial legislation such as the national anthem law to resume its final stages. Such concerns became rife after Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that “time is running out” and that the law – which criminalises insulting March of the Volunteers – has “one final step” before completion.
Speaking to the press after the walkout, Kwok said he was shocked and accused Fung as making a “u-turn” on her stance. He claimed Lee’s exercise of power to hold the meeting had violated the Rules of Procedures, and the eviction of some lawmakers was unlawful.
“Shocking, absolutely shocking… today we see a 180-degree turn on the part of the legal adviser. What’s happening inside is an illegitimate exercise of the power to chair and preside over meetings. It is wrong,” Kwok said.
Tanya Chan of the Civic Party criticised Fung for not providing a written copy of her opinion on the external legal advice. She said the democrats would need to read the transcript of Fung’s speech at the meeting and analyse whether they had strong grounds to take further action.
When asked if democrats would walk out of meetings called by Lee in the future, Chan said: “I don’t know what meetings Starry Lee wants to call. She is now like the eternal chairperson, she already has the general powers of the chairperson. She will be the chair until she is elected again.”