Oath-taking pair overplayed their hand, and the damage to Hong Kong is dire

Jason Y. Ng says the controversy highlights how youthful passion and popular support can be a force for either great good or immense harm

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 December, 2016, 6:46pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 December, 2016, 6:46pm

Oathgate, the political firestorm that started two months ago and has dominated the headlines ever since, is showing no signs of dying down. Like a molten lava flow, the slow-motion disaster continues to threaten everything in its destructive path: the city’s rule of law, the recent Legislative Council election results, the fledgling anti-establishment coalition, and the already dwindling trust between Hong Kong and mainland China.

It all started with a bad idea gone wrong. At the swearing-in ceremony in October, Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang – firebrands who ran on a pro-independence platform and were among half a dozen young candidates voted into Legco – draped themselves in a banner bearing the slogan “Hong Kong is NOT China” and used an archaic racial slur to refer to the People’s Republic in their oath.

They have done much more than shoot themselves in the foot – they have recklessly endangered the entire anti-establishment bloc

By now it is clear that the two overplayed their hand and underestimated Beijing’s resolve to stamp out any and all secessionist ideologies. The National People’s Congress Standing Committee issued an interpretation within weeks of the provocation, to clarify the oath-taking provision in the Basic Law and bar from office any lawmaker who did not follow the prescribed wording of the oath or who lacked “sincerity” when taking it.

With only themselves to blame, the pair lost the seats they had fought hard to win, after months of bruising televised debates and taxing election campaigns endured by both candidates and voters.

But they have done much more than shoot themselves in the foot – they have recklessly endangered the entire anti-establishment bloc.

The rise and fall of Hong Kong’s pro-independence lawmakers

Last Friday, the Chief Executive’s Office confirmed the opposition’s worst fears by initiating legal action to unseat four other lawmakers – “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, Edward Yiu Chung-yim and Lau Siu-lai – all of whom had also strayed from the original oath. Long Hair called the government’s move a “coup d’état” to overturn the Legco election results.

If the government prevails in court and if some of the seats held by the disqualified lawmakers end up going to the pro-Beijing camp in the ensuing by-election, the pan-democrats may lose their zealously guarded majority in the geographical constituencies, as well as the critical veto power to block bad bills relating to electoral amendments that require a supermajority vote. All hell could and would break loose.

The delicate balance of partisan power aside, Oathgate – and the Basic Law interpretation it triggered – has already plunged the city into a constitutional crisis. Since the handover, Beijing has exercised considerable restraint towards its right to interpret the Basic Law, acutely aware that each interpretation chips away at Hong Kong’s rule of law a little more.

Insulted and outraged by the duo’s publicity stunt, the communist leadership was left with no choice but to deploy that blunt instrument once again.

Why Beijing saw fit to interpret Hong Kong’s Basic Law

But that’s not all. The incident has given Beijing an opening – if it ever needed one – to tighten its control on the unfettered freedom of expression in Hong Kong. Already, there is mumbling within the city’s ruling elite about the need to enact a much-dreaded antisubversion law, a discussion that has been shelved after a record number of citizens took to the streets in 2003 to oppose it.

Hong Kong will move on controversial security law, CY Leung says, as Beijing bars independence activists from Legco

Still, the most damaging impact of Oathgate is the diversion of public attention. The seemingly interminable saga continues to push all other news stories off the front page and distract citizens from substantive issues that are more pressing and deserving of their focus.

Before Yau and Leung were thrust to the fore, another opposition lawmaker – Eddie Chu Hoi-dick – was gaining traction with his investigation of a scandal involving a major land development project in New Territories West. Chu was well on his way to expose the long-standing collusion among the government, property tycoons, rural community leaders and the triads, making a compelling case that those complicated business ties are the root cause of the city’s stubborn housing shortage.

Eddie Chu, everything a seasoned politician is not

Thanks to the bumbling duo, however, Chu’s good work has been all but obliterated, and his one-man crusade to take on the establishment is not likely to regain momentum any time soon.

In the coming months, all eyes will be on the next chapter of Oathgate, as the court battle to defend the four seats will continue to play out and, if and when that fails, there will be another round of irksome and polarising election campaigns before voters have to head to the polls again.

Are the two undercover agents serving the Dark Lord, or are they bona fide political rookies?

That the political fallout has worked in Beijing’s favour has left many wondering whose team Yau and Leung are really on. Social media is ablaze with rumours and speculation that they are in fact moles hired by communist operatives to stir the pot, and that the appearance of chaos and ungovernability in the SAR would then give Beijing a convenient excuse to purge Legco of the opposition – or at least weaken the pro-democracy coalition.

So far, the evidence supporting these conspiracy theories has been circumstantial at best. Some point to Yau’s internship years ago at Ta Kung Pao, a Beijing-owned newspaper, while others question why neither she nor Leung has been able to produce any photo of themselves at the Occupy demonstrations in 2014, even though they touted themselves as “paratroopers” (Occupy protesters-turned-politicians) during their recent election campaign.

Are the two undercover agents serving the Dark Lord, or are they bona fide political rookies who have misjudged Beijing’s temperament and unwittingly committed political self-immolation? We may never know. What we do know is the wreck they have left behind and the long-term damage they have inflicted on the city.

Hong Kong government blocks questions from four Legco lawmakers facing judicial review

When asked by a reporter about their future plans, Yau and Leung answered: “We want to go back to our ordinary lives.” Yes, walk away and let the rest of Hong Kong clean up your mess.

If there is a moral to this story, it is that young politicians armed with passion and an electoral mandate can do tremendous good as well as serious harm. If channelled constructively, as do lawmakers like Eddie Chu, their energy can achieve great things and move the city in the right direction. If used recklessly, however, the power can consume those who wield it and everybody around.

Jason Y. Ng is a columnist and the author of Umbrellas in Bloom: Hong Kong’s Occupy Movement Uncovered