Hong Kong district councillor Fergus Leung, one of those who may soon be unseated once a new oath-taking law for public officers is passed, is urging Hongkongers to be more “proactive” in forming community networks to sustain the fight for democracy.
The looming disqualification of the 23-year-old and of three other democratic district councillors, came to light on Tuesday, when Constitutional and Mainland Affairs minister Erick Tsang unveiled plans to subject members of the 18 councils to an oath, a requirement which already exists for members of the higher-level Legislative Council and civil servants.
They will have to pledge loyalty to the Hong Kong government and vow to uphold the Basic Law, with violators facing a five-year election ban. Government officials will be empowered to decide whether councillors are sincere in swearing the oath, taking into account their previous comments or writings.
Pan-democrats control 17 of the 18 district councils after a landslide victory in November 2019, in the midst of the pro-democracy protests which rocked the city for months.
Tsang said Leung, Lester Shum, Tat Cheng and Tiffany Yuen, who were previously barred from running in the now-postponed 2020 Legislative Council (LegCo) election, would “in theory” lose their district council seats as soon as the new law was passed.
Leung told HKFP on Wednesday he was not surprised by the announcement, as a returning officer had ruled last July that he did not have a “genuine and truthful” intention to pledge allegiance to the HKSAR when attempting to stand for the Legislative Council.
“[Tuesday’s] announcement cleared things up… there was a lot of speculation about disqualifying district councillors over the past six months. Now we have a better idea of how much time we have left,” he said.
Last December, local media cited sources as saying China’s top legislative body plans to stamp out the influence of Hong Kong’s district councillors.
They are seen as the last major opposition force still surviving after pro-democracy members of LegCo resigned collectively last November in protest at the disqualification of four of their colleagues.
While the Hong Kong government said the oath-taking requirement was not targeting any politician or political party, Leung was convinced it is an attempt to eliminate opposition.
He cited a list of positive and negative behaviour outlined in the bill which would be seen as complying with – or breaching – the oath. From endangering national security to committing acts that “undermine or have a tendency to undermine the overall interests of the HKSAR,” Leung said the ambit of the new law was broad and vaguely defined.
“Affecting Hong Kong’s overall interests… that scope is wider than the Western Harbour Crossing,” he said, referencing a cross-harbour tunnel in the city. “You can never grasp the red line.”
Together with Beijing’s plan to “perfect” Hong Kong’s electoral system to ensure only “patriots” hold power, Leung said he believed the opposition camp would no longer be allowed a presence in the political structure.
“I don’t have much expectations for future elections: people can save time and resources to do other things,” he said.
The Central and Western District Council member estimated he would be able to stay in office for another two months, after the government predicted the draft law would be approved between April and June. The bill will be tabled at LegCo on March 17. Although his four-year term may be cut short, Leung said he would remain involved in politics and keep serving the community.
“Many people contributed a lot to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement without holding a so-called council seat. Even though I may no longer be a district councillor, I still hope to walk alongside the people of Hong Kong.”
Leung was among a group of young candidates who decided to run in the 2019 District Council election in light of the anti-extradition bill protests. The citywide unrest shook Hong Kong for months, with frequent violent clashes between police and pro-democracy protesters.
With little experience in politics, the activist admitted it was difficult to convince people in his Kwun Lung constituency that he was fit for the job. But the unaffiliated political novice eventually defeated a candidate from the DAB – the city’s largest pro-Beijing party – by 225 votes to secure a seat, as many people backed him for his support of the protests.
Looking back on the 2019 election, Leung said voters had high hopes for the fresh batch of district councillors who were elected amid a “political storm.” But their greatest expectations were frustrated since the district councils had limited power to hold the authorities accountable for alleged wrongdoing during the months-long protests.
“There was little chance to discuss motions questioning police brutality. Sometimes district councillors passed some motions but they had little effect. We couldn’t even ask the government to disclose more information,” Leung said.
Still, he believed the current council term had seen district councillors closing the gap with residents, and citizens becoming more interested and involved in community affairs. Leung said this would be crucial to the future of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
“In the past, people relied on lawmakers or district councillors to resist [the authorities] on their behalf, or thought the pro-democracy movement would just evolve around them,” Leung said. “But that doesn’t work anymore. Every Hongkonger has to think of ways to form networks for gathering resources for resistance or connecting people who have the same ideals.”
Leung and 54 other pro-democracy figures were arrested last month under the Beijing-imposed national security law, for allegedly committing “subversion” in connection with an unofficial primary election organised by the opposition in July last year before the expected LegCo polls.
On Friday, Leung revealed on Facebook that police had asked him and others to report back to them on Sunday, almost two months earlier than scheduled.
Police accused the group of attempting to use strategic voting to secure a majority in LegCo, with the aim of vetoing budget bills, forcing the chief executive to step down and eventually driving the government into a shutdown.
Leung predicted the force would detain him overnight on Sunday and bring him to court on Monday to officially press charges.
Leung told HKFP the situation in Hong Kong had “deteriorated rapidly” over the past year as the protests ebbed amid the Covid-19 pandemic. He said he could only “grin and bear it” and think about how to survive.
“I haven’t had a moment to pause and think about what my next move can be. For the so-called national security offenders like us, we don’t really have the concept of long-term planning, because we don’t know when they will officially charge us.”
Asked how Hong Kong should move forward in striving for democracy in view of the latest crackdown, Leung said it was a question raised by many media but he did not have an answer.
“I would say civil society groups will become more important… it requires people to be more proactive. But what the next goal will be, I honestly don’t know.”