Some 170 pro-democracy district councillors may be forced out of office under a new Hong Kong law requiring councillors to swear an oath of allegiance to the government, according to media reports, in what would be another major setback for the embattled opposition.

Carrie Lam oath-taking
Chief Executive Carrie Lam attends an oath-taking ceremony for civil servants on December 18, 2020. File Photo: GovHK.

The higher-level Legislative Council, which is dominated by pro-government lawmakers, passed an amendment in May requiring public officers including the district representatives to swear oaths of loyalty to the government and vow to uphold the Basic Law.

The district councillors will be asked to swear the oaths during individual ceremonies, several local media outlets reported. The government is also drafting a “negative list” of past behaviour which would be considered as violating the oaths and lead to disqualification, they reported.

Such behaviour will reportedly include taking part in or coordinating a primary election for democratic candidates held in July last year, lending out their offices as polling stations during the primary, and signing a primary election manifesto.

Democrat primary election Tiffany Yuen
Former District Councillor Tiffany Yuen during the 2020 primary election. File Photo: Studio Incendo.

Over 600,000 Hongkongers voted in the primary to select candidates to represent the democratic camp in a 2020 legislative council election which was later postponed. The election will now be held in December under new rules imposed by Beijing, which sharply reduce the number of directly elected seats.

A total of 47 democrats including district councillors have been charged under the national security law over their involvement in the primary and in the manifesto, and most have been held in custody since late February. The “negative” requirements will cover all the district councillors amongst the 47.

Scores may face disqualification

In all, nearly 170 pro-democracy district councillors may be disqualified including 11 chairpersons of district councils and seven vice-chairpersons, Sing Tao Daily reported, while the South China Morning Post cited sources as saying about 150 could be forced out.

At least a dozen of the 47 democrats have tendered their resignations in past months, although a handful of others — such as Michael Pang and Sze Tak-loy — have continued to run their offices as district councillors after being granted bail.

The pro-democracy camp won 388 out of 479 seats in the November 2019 district council elections in the wake of months of sometimes violent protests against an extradition bill – a major blow to the pro-Beijing camp. It currently controls 17 of the 18 councils.

Erick Tsang
Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang. Photo:

The oath-taking requirement for district councillors was unveiled in February, a day after Chinese official Xia Baolong said the Hong Kong government should ensure only “patriots” hold power in the city.

Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang said when the oath-taking bill amendments were proposed that a “positive” and “negative” list of behaviour would be considered when assessing whether councillors are complying with or violating their oaths.

Almost 40 pro-democracy district councillors have quit in the past three months, with some explicitly saying they refused to take the oath while others cited health and personal reasons. Some stepped down after being detained pending the national security trial.

Others, such as the remaining Neo Democrat district councillors, say they plan to comply with the new oath-taking requirement.

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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.