Beijing warns Hong Kong pro-independence politicians after LegCo election

Nathan Law (center) with Joshua Wong (center-left) and supporters in Causeway Bay following Law's LegCo win. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Beijing has told newly elected politicians in Hong Kong not to back independence for the semi-autonomous territory, after young democracy activists won seats for the first time at the weekend.

Sunday's vote saw activists pushing for more autonomy from Beijing secure a crucial foothold in the city's Legislative Council (LegCo), as fears grow that China is tightening its grip. It was the first major poll since pro-democracy rallies in 2014 failed to win concessions on political reform from Beijing.

Some student protest leaders were among those winning seats in the landmark vote including Umbrella Movement student leader Nathan Law. Five candidates advocating independence or self-determination for Hong Kong are to sit in the 70-seat assembly.

Law will be the youngest legislator in the 70-seat house, which includes 40 pro-establishment and 22 pro-democracy seats. Together, the opposition will make up more than a one-third veto bloc in the first major election since the 2014 protests.

In a statement from China's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council that was reported by the official Xinhua news agency on Monday, Beijing highlighted that campaigning for Hong Kong's independence was against the constitution of China and the laws of Hong Kong.

"We firmly oppose any activity relating to Hong Kong independence in any form, inside or outside the Legislative Council, and firmly support the Hong Kong government to impose punishment in accordance with the law," Xinhua cited a spokesperson of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council as saying.

The pro-independence movement is a threat to China's sovereignty and security, will damage the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong, and is counter to the fundamental interests of Hong Kong citizens, added Xinhua, citing the office's statement.

The weekend's polls were the first elections since the Umbrella Movement protests of 2014, which were triggered by proposed changes to Hong Kong's electoral system, under which China planned to screen all nominees in the first direct election of the city's leader.

The vote also saw the highest turnout since Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" deal to protect the territory's freedoms for 50 years.

Fears that Beijing interference is threatening those liberties in a range of areas – from politics to education and media – have sparked the birth of the independence movement. It has been seen by authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing as illegal and unconstitutional.

"What we hope to achieve is to do our best to put a barrier between Hong Kong and the invisible hand of Beijing so that it cannot interfere with Hong Kong's autonomy and freedom," Baggio Leung, one of the pro-independence campaigners who won seats, told CNBC.

"But when this barrier cannot hold we will need to separate," the 30-year-old Umbrella Movement alumnus added.

Traditional voices in Hong Kong were already raising concerns about a rift with Beijing.

"Hong Kong's success is really based on the 'one country, two systems' policy; independency is not realistic at all, so hopefully this will not be their only objective in LegCo," veteran lawmaker Elizabeth Quat said of the localist legislators.

The Hong Kong edition of the state-owned China Daily said on Tuesday that wins by activists could mean "separatist ideas" emerging in LegCo.

In a separate column in the newspaper, a mainland-based academic said that there could be legal challenges to lawmakers advocating independence, citing a law under which a candidate or group of voters can lodge a petition against an elected member they believe is ineligible or has acted illegally.

Politicians will take up their seats on October 1 and will have to swear an oath to uphold the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, which describes it as part of China. It is not yet clear what might happen if they then advocate independence as a possibility for Hong Kong in the legislature.

Several candidates were banned from running in the elections for failing to prove they no longer backed Hong Kong's independence.

Political analyst Chung Kim-wah of Polytechnic University said that the government would need to be wary of exacerbating divisions in society by freezing out those pushing for more autonomy, known as localists. "Localists got 20 percent of the total votes, including ones that were not voted in. They represent part of society. The government cannot just hastily disqualify them,” he said.

Hong Kong's leader, Leung Chun-ying, said on Tuesday that all lawmakers must abide by the Basic Law. However, he said that he wanted to cooperate with all legislators. "I hope we can all work for society together," Leung said.

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