The Hong Kong High Court’s decision to disqualify Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching from the Legislative Council is greeted as a splendid victory by the local administration and pro-Beijing camp. But a victory over what? The establishment is in a gleefully vindictive mood – removing the Youngspiration duo’s names from their Legco office doors within minutes, and drooling at the thought of chasing them for back-pay and legal costs. Such pettiness suggests that they think persecuting and punishing the pair re-establishes order, rights a wrong, and is the end of the matter.
Rather than solving a problem, the government is laying the ground for far bigger and longer-running ones. The Youngspiration pair might appeal. And the courts may or may not give similar treatment to other pro-democrat Legco members who arguably fail the Oath Sincerity Test. (There are signs that the government is not dumb enough to want a full-scale purge, but excitable patriotic rabble-rousers are on the case.) Result: additional alienation and hostility building up among somewhere between 20% and 60% of the electorate.
Then you’ve got by-elections, and thus the potential for more disenfranchisement-through-loyalty-tests, or for de-facto referenda, or other assorted mayhem.
To the extent that dissidents are removed from the legislature, opposition activity moves into the informal and non-official sphere. Young localists seem to have a flair for the unpredictable, so this could mean anything. If they want to capitalize on their ability to panic and alarm Beijing, increasing visible activity in schools and colleges would be an option, as would developing contacts with counterparts in Taiwan. (Any chance of some business boycotts?)
To the extent that the legislature becomes more of a rubber stamp, the dreaded Article 23 looms its head. Elsie Leung again acts as spoilsport and says that piecemeal and incremental amendments would install national security laws without upsetting the public. This may be too subtle for the more rabid Liaison Office officials and local Communist sympathizers, for whom Article 23 is an overdue symbol of sovereignty to be implemented with maximum noise and triumphalism. Either way, anything with the Article 23 label is going to be toxic, and it would take a foolhardy administration to try it – and foolhardy seems to be a given.
Not least, commandeered to whatever extent by Beijing’s ‘interpretation’, Hong Kong’s courts have assumed a significantly more effective Mainland-style role as political tools of the government.
One theory is that this whole obsessive struggle against ‘Hong Kong independence’ has been a way for Chief Executive CY Leung and the Liaison Office to take advantage of Xi Jinping’s weaknesses and instincts and get a second term. Such a tactic could still mesh with any strategy Beijing might have to methodically re-shape Hong Kong as a subdued territory. But the opportunistic and over-zealous character of the anti-localist campaign has (perhaps fittingly) a more home-grown and amateurish feel to it (a bit like the bizarre HK Youth Army theatrics in early 2015).
If this is the case, CY/Liaison Office get their second term – but at a cost of: more elections and courts chaos; heightened uncertainty about the integrity of institutions; deeper alienation of the young-educated populace; all manner of potential new ‘threats’ as separatism goes guerrilla; and quite possibly some heavy street action. And the timing of many of these consequences will be beyond official control. One riot or high-profile street-occupation in the period before Beijing finalizes the CE quasi-election ballot, and CY could yet be finished. Some victory, in any case.