Legislative Council of Hong Kong

Agnes Chow disqualification ‘step towards the evisceration’ of Hong Kong’s autonomy 

Prominent US democracy scholar slams ruling as outrageous and says it runs contrary to ‘one country, two systems’ principle

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 January, 2018, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 January, 2018, 10:41pm

The disqualification of democracy activist Agnes Chow Ting from running in the Hong Kong legislature’s by-election was “outrageous”, a world-renowned democracy scholar said on Monday, warning the move symbolised “another step towards the evisceration” of the city’s high degree of autonomy from China.

Professor Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University in the US, also told the Post that the idea of self-determination could be interpreted in many ways and did not necessarily mean national independence – in contrast to how some mainland scholars and Beijing-friendly lawmakers viewed the matter.

At least 2,000 protest banning of pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow from Legco race

Hong Kong election officials triggered a political storm on Saturday when they barred Chow, 21, from standing in the March 11 poll on the grounds that her party, Demosisto, had called for self-determination for the city. They claimed self-determination deviated from “one country, two systems”, the principle that the city can maintain a high degree of autonomy after it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

The returning officer for the Electoral Affairs Commission, Anne Teng, who oversees election procedures, did not seek clarification from Chow before ruling her nomination invalid.

“I think the disqualification is outrageous,” Diamond said in an email. “It is another step in the escalating pattern of violation of basic democratic principles, in this case, the freedom to contest for office.”

It is another step in the escalating pattern of violation of basic democratic principles
Professor Larry Diamond

Diamond has been keeping a close watch on Hong Kong’s constitutional development for years and has served as the thesis adviser to Executive Council member Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee as she pursued a master’s degree at Stanford in 2013.

In 2014, he slammed Beijing’s political reform proposal, which effectively allowed screening of chief executive hopefuls. Diamond compared it with an “Iranian-styled rigged system” that failed to meet international standards for universal suffrage.

It was “bad enough” that Hongkongers could not freely elect their city’s leader, he said on Monday, and now the local government – and the Beijing authorities behind them – were determined to also vet who could stand for the legislature and be increasingly inclined to limit the representation of views they disliked.

Did Demosisto play down its political aims to help Agnes Chow’s poll bid?

The disqualification caused an outcry from opposition members and some legal scholars, including former University of Hong Kong law professor Michael Davis, who said the move created a “slippery slope”.

Diamond agreed, believing the end of the slope would be the demise of the limited degree of democracy that Hong Kong enjoyed.

Agnes Chow’s disqualification does opposition a favour

“The irony here is that the authorities claim these disqualifications are to defend one country, two systems,” he said. “But, in fact, they represent another step towards the evisceration of that principle, under which Hong Kong must retain its autonomy and at least its limited freedom.”

But Diamond called on the young activists to handle the disqualification adroitly and creatively, such as backing an independent candidate and taking the exact oath of office in future to lay the issue aside. Improper oath-taking was the reason six opposition lawmakers were kicked out of the Legislative Council last year. The by-election on March 11 is meant to fill four of the six vacant seats.

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Diamond invoked the US civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr, who urged protesters to keep their “eyes on the prize”.

“The prize is political power, or at least having enough of it in [Legco] to block the further deterioration of freedom and democracy in Hong Kong.”

Some mainland scholars and pro-establishment figures have argued self-determination is no different from advocating Hong Kong independence. Executive councillor and barrister Ronny Tong Ka-wah had earlier said the political philosophy of Demosisto could give the impression that it endorsed independence as one option for Hong Kong’s future.

However, Diamond, founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy, distinguished between the two ideas.

Calling for “self-determination” for Hong Kong could mean that the city should have a right to choose how it will be governed, such as how to elect its leader and the legislature in a manner free from Beijing’s interference, he said. Diamond claimed this approach would be consistent with a more benign interpretation of one country, two systems that most Hongkongers and the international community hoped would unfold.

Having last visited Hong Kong in 2016, the scholar reiterated it was neither politically smart nor appropriate to advocate independence, saying any move towards such a goal would be met with force. 

Separately, the 30 legal representatives sitting on the Election Committee, which picks Hong Kong’s leader, issued a joint statement on Monday, expressing deep regret and concern over Chow’s disqualification.

The lawyers pointed to General Comment 25 adopted by the UN Human Rights Committee. It stipulated “political opinion may not be used as a ground to deprive any person of the right to stand for election”.

They argued the decision to use political opinion or affiliation to deprive Chow’s right to stand for election was “unreasonable, unlawful and unconstitutional” and in violation of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, as well as the Hong Kong Bill of Rights.

The lawyers also slammed the decision for breaching the fundamental rules of natural justice, claiming it was made without affording Chow any opportunity to make representations.

Among the legal heavyweights who signed the statement were Edward Chan King-sang, Graham Harris, Robert Pang Yiu-hung, Civic Party’s Alan Leong Kah-kit and the newly elected Bar Association chairman, Philip Dykes.