As Hong Kongers Took to the Polls, Threats to Hong Kong’s Rule of Law Loom Large

COMMENTARY Asia

As Hong Kongers Took to the Polls, Threats to Hong Kong’s Rule of Law Loom Large

Nov 27th, 2019 2 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Olivia Enos

Senior Policy Analyst, Asian Studies Center

Olivia specializes in human rights and national security challenges in Asia.
People gather in support of pro-democracy protesters in the Kwun Tong area in Hong Kong on November 27, 2019. NICOLAS ASFOURI / Contributor / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Close to 3 million voters took to the polls to cast their votes and make their voices heard.

Many around the globe saw this election as a referendum of the demands of nearly six months of protests.

Perhaps the greatest threat to liberty is the erosion of institutions designed to protect it.

Sunday’s elections in Hong Kong delivered an unequivocal win to pro-democracy parties, who swept as much as 90 percent of the available seats in district council elections. Far from the sleepy, unimportant local elections of yester years, close to 3 million voters took to the polls to cast their votes and make their voices heard.

Many around the globe saw this election as a referendum of the demands of nearly six months of protests. At the very least, the results were the public’s ordered way of making their wishes known—and those desires are unquestionable.

While voters took to the polls, however, another branch of the government is facing attack. As protests waged on last week (and took a decidedly more violent turn as security forces and students at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University engaged in a standoff), Hong Kong’s High Court handed down a decision that an earlier ban on wearing masks was unconstitutional.

One day after the High Court’s decision to overturn the mask ban, Beijing issued a decree that Hong Kong’s judiciary lacked the authority to declare the mask ban unconstitutional. The statements, issued by Zang Tiewei, a spokesman on behalf of Beijing’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), declared that Beijing’s legislature, not Hong Kong’s judiciary, possessed the sole authority to deem a law compliant or non-compliant with the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s constitution). He also asserted that Beijing’s constitution and Hong Kong’s Basic Law together governed the Special Administrative Region and that those two laws in tandem should form the basis of determining the constitutionality of the mask ban.

The rebuke from Beijing was forceful and represented an intervention in Hong Kong’s judiciary, an independent organ of Hong Kong’s government, that has not been seen before.

A few days after Beijing made its concerns known, a temporary 7-day mask ban went into effect.

This move by Beijing should not be overlooked by either Hong Kongers or the international community. Hong Kongers have historically taken great pride in their independent judiciary. It is their means of preserving the Basic Law and safeguarding Hong Konger’s liberties.

Protests, after all, began in an effort to preserve rule of law. The extradition bill that sparked protests was seen as a threat because it had the potential to enable individuals in Hong Kong, for any reason, to be extradited to Beijing—a clear threat to rule of law.

Any erosion in the Hong Kong’s judiciary has the potential to be a lot more damning to Hong Kongers’ way of life than even the previous threat posed by the extradition bill. Beijing’s intervention also has implications for at least one of the protestors core demands which, among other asks, includes a request for an impartial investigation into police brutality carried out by Hong Kong security forces against protestors.

It’s pretty unlikely—maybe impossible—to carry out an impartial investigation when the very organ with the power to impose consequences on the guilty is being neutered by Beijing.

Perhaps the greatest threat to liberty is the erosion of institutions designed to protect it. The world is witnessing that taking place today in Hong Kong and must do what it can to defend it.

This piece originally appeared on Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/oliviaenos/2019/11/25/as-hong-kongers-took-to-the-polls-threats-to-hong-kongs-rule-of-law-loom-large/#1217586a1c0d