Hong Kong will introduce new requirements for district councillors to take an oath swearing to uphold the Basic Law and pledge allegiance to the government.

Those who violate their oaths will be barred from election for five years, the Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang announced on Tuesday. The ban will also apply to legislative councillors who are considered in violation of their loyalty pledges.

Tsang presented a “positive” and “negative” list of behaviours which would be considered as complying with – or violating – the oaths.

Behaviours that would be deemed incompliant include committing acts which endanger national security, as well as any refusal to recognise China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong. Advocating or supporting independence for Hong Kong, promoting “self-determination” for the city or devising a referendum or a “constitution by all people” would also be a violation. Soliciting “interference” by foreign entities in Hong Kong affairs, insulting the national anthem or national symbols, or seeking to undermine the city’s political structure will all be considered breaches of the oath.

The “positive list” of acts include upholding the interests of Hong Kong, national sovereignty and the city’s political structure.

district council election november 11 (16)
Residents celebrate during the 2019 District Council election. Photo: Galileo Cheng/HKFP.

“I believe that, if according to the list, the individuals are sincere in upholding the Basic Law and swearing allegiance to the SAR government, they won’t have to be worried,” Tsang said. “The process of taking an oath is not that harsh, as long as the councillor swears the oath sincerely and solemnly.”

He added that the amendment was not intended to target any one person or party but pro-democracy legislators who announced plans to veto all government bills last year would likely be in violation: “As a legislator, your responsibility is to review and approve bills, or the budget, so if the legislators said they will veto everything, then is this in the overall public interest of Hong Kong? Obviously not.”

Retrospective effect?

The proposed amendment did not specify whether it would be retrospectively applied to acts committed before the change or to those previously disqualified, Tsang said. The government will not apply it retrospectively, he added, but past behaviour may be considered when determining if an oath had been breached.

As soon as proceedings are brought against an individual for breaching the oath, Tsang said “it would be the best to the public’s interest” to suspend their duties immediately.

carrie lam oath ceremony civil servants
Top officials take oaths of allegiance in December 2020. Photo: GovHK screenshot.

Tsang said the requirement under Basic Law 104 for oaths to be taken by the chief executive, principal officials, executive councillors, legislators, and judges would be extended to district councillors.

“Director Xia Baolong said yesterday that ‘Patriots must respect and protect the country’s fundamental system.’ The fundamental system is the socialist system and the HKSAR’s constitutional order,” Tsang said. “As for being patriotic, which country would one be patriotic towards? Of course we are patriotic towards the People’s Republic of China, not other countries.”

All but one district councils were won by pro-democracy candidates last year, after they swept the board in the local elections. The district council elections are the only fully democratic elections in the city.

Tsang said that four pro-democracy district councillors – Lester Shum, Tiffany Yuen, Tat Cheng and Fergus Leung – would “in theory” be disqualified as soon as the amendment is passed.

Last year, they were barred from running in the legislative council elections and thus – if they were to pledge allegiance – they may be in violation, he said: “For these four district councillors currently in office, if the bill is passed, in theory, they would be disqualified as district councillors as they have been determined as not having supported or sworn allegiance [to the government].”

‘Deprivation of political rights’

Andy Yu, vice-chairman of the Yau Tsim Mong District Council, told HKFP on Tuesday that the new proposal was “spicier” than the rumoured amendments.

Andy Yu Prince Edward
Andy Yu. File Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

He said he anticipated an ousting of district councillors if they were considered to be in breach of the oaths. But he did not expect the government to bar violators from standing in elections for five years: “This is a deprivation of political rights,” Yu said.

He also questioned the move to suspend district councillors whilst they await an investigation and court ruling on whether they breached the oath: “It violates the concept of presumption of innocence.”

The Civic Party district councillor said that, while the government stated the new requirement was not targeting democrats, he felt that politicians who are not pro-establishment had a higher chance of violating the oath. He added that his party has yet to discuss how they will react to the impending amendments.

The amendments to the Public Offices (Candidacy and Taking Up Offices) (Miscellaneous) Ordinance will arrive at the legislature for the first and second reading on March 17.

Additional reporting: Kelly Ho & Tom Grundy.

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Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.