Demosisto’s Agnes Chow is blocked from standing in March by-election with others likely to follow
As widely feared the Chinese dictatorship has begun blocking pro-democracy candidates from standing in upcoming by-elections to fill four of the seats left empty after the ousting of six opposition legislators last year. The move is the latest in Hong Kong’s creeping coup against the mass democracy movement.
Agnes Chow Ting, a 21-year-old spokesperson for Demosisto, a small student-led party with connections to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, has had her candidature for the by-election rejected on orders from Hong Kong’s Beijing-controlled government. Chow was almost certain to win back the seat, on Hong Kong Island, that was stripped last year from her party colleague, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, who is also the chairman of Demosisto. The three other by-elections are in West Kowloon and New Territories East, both geographical constituencies like Hong Kong Island, and in the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape functional constituency (half the legislature is made up of undemocratic small-circle functional constituencies reserved for business and professional groups).
Nathan Law was one of six opposition legislators who were ousted from the partially elected Legislative Council (Legco) in the “Oathgate” affair. The six, whose politics are deemed undesirable by the Chinese regime, were retroactively disqualified on the initiative of the government using the law courts to rule their oath-taking as insufficiently “sincere”. This followed an intervention from the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in China, a so-called parliament that is no more than an echo chamber for the dictatorship.
Agnes Chow of Demosisto.
Eliminate the ‘radicals’
Law and colleague Joshua Wong were both also imprisoned last year along with 14 other democracy activists in a government orchestrated ‘pincer movement’ designed to eliminate the more radical sections of Hong Kong’s democracy struggle from competing in future elections. Anyone jailed for more than three months is ineligible to stand in elections for five years.
Other radical pro-democracy parties such as the League of Social Democrats, fronted by ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung, have similarly been targeted for a combination of jail sentences and electoral disqualification, which is designed to keep them out of the Legco. The government hopes that by thus denying them a public platform and the financial resources that a Legco seat confers, and throwing their leading activists in prison, it can eradicate the more radical parliamentary groups leaving only ‘moderate’ and more malleable forces to speak for the democracy movement.
A Hong Kong government statement on Saturday 27 January announced the ban on Chow’s candidacy claiming she “cannot possibly comply” with election law requirements to uphold Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and the ‘one country two systems’ arrangement under which Hong Kong has been ruled by China since 1997. The ‘evidence’ used to exclude Chow was Demosisto’s manifesto which calls for “self determination”.
While Demosisto and Chow deny this means support for independence from China, and in fact have many times distanced themselves from groups that advocate independence, Beijing has declared that it all means the same thing and “violates” the Basic Law. In fact there is no such proscription on calling for independence in the Basic Law, which also purports to guarantee freedom of speech.
It also now seems likely that another pan-democrat, Edward Yiu Chung-yim, will be banned from standing in the by-elections. Yiu was one of the six disqualified from the Legco last year. He has been nominated to contest the West Kowloon constituency. If Yiu is banned it will set an ominous precedent that other disqualified legislators like ‘Long Hair’ and Lau Siu-lai could also be blocked from standing to win back their seats. The seats of ‘Long Hair’ and Lau are not among the four to be contested in March because the appeal court has still to hear the case against their disqualification.
“The decision to block Agnes Chow and [possibly] Edward Yiu is the second phase of election rigging for the Legco,” says Pasha of Socialist Action in Hong Kong.
“The first wave was when the government organised the disqualification of the six legislators, nullifying more than 12 percent of the votes cast in the 2016 Legco elections. The decision to rig the by-elections in this way makes it clear that unless the current corrupt and undemocratic government is brought down there will be nothing remotely resembling free or fair elections in Hong Kong. It’s all basically fixed from now on,” he said.
Reactions to the ban on Chow have been swift and furious. Demosisto issued a statement saying the disqualification was “illegal and groundless” and “payback against an entire generation” – because the youth who sparked the Umbrella Movement protests are the main targets of current political repression.
Joshua Wong of Demosisto, who was jailed last August and sentenced to a second jail term last week for another Umbrella Movement-related ‘offence’, explained how the government has tightened the ring of repressive rules around the opposition:
“Two years ago, only nominees promoting independence were banned. Now, people advocating ‘self-determination’ are permanently banned from running. No one knows if Beijing will redraw the red line so that all pan-democrats who oppose the legislation of Article 23 [an anti-subversion law] will be banned as well.”
“Mass action is the only answer”
The government has tried to cover its political repression with a veneer of ‘legality’. But this is fooling fewer and fewer people. Maya Wang of NGO Human Rights Watch was clear: “The contorted legal arguments advanced by the Hong Kong government in disqualifying Chow can barely hide the political intentions of its decision: that this is another act in Beijing’s play to chip away Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
A mass protest has been called outside the Legco on Sunday evening to protest the by-election rigging. Socialist Action (CWI in Hong Kong) intends to step up its call for a one-day Hong Kong-wide strike as the only measure powerful enough to challenge the government’s deepening authoritarian crackdown. Students, who earlier this week staged protests against the suspension of two student representatives at Baptist University for their part in a dispute over Mandarin language tests, are a key layer who could lead the way by building for a city-wide school strike to defend democratic rights.
“The government have clearly had a strategy since the end of the Umbrella Movement,” says Socialist Action’s Pasha.
“They are using a combination of election screening, disqualifications, political trials and jail sentences in an attempt to kill off the democracy movement, starting with its most struggle-orientated layers. This is also a preparation for a new push to introduce Article 23, to fully ‘mainlandise’ Hong Kong’s political system which can only be stopped by determined mass action such as strike action.”
Stop Repression in Hong Kong
Stop Repression in Hong Kong is an international campaign which Socialist Action helped to initiate, appealing for solidarity protests from workers’ and youth organisations around the world. The campaign staged protests in 22 cities worldwide from Berlin to Colombo to Vancouver last October against the Chinese state’s repression in Hong Kong. Socialists and left members of parliament in Ireland and Germany, and leading trade unionists in Mexico, South Africa and Britain have signed the online petition to support democratic rights in Hong Kong and China.