HONG KONG -- Pro-democracy legislators in Hong Kong this week are facing a crucial poll among a relatively small -- but representationally significant -- group of their supporters who will decide whether the lawmakers remain in the city's Legislative Council or resign in protest over the government's move to delay elections.
A survey beginning on Monday will decide whether most of the pro-democracy lawmakers will serve an extended term after the Hong Kong government postponed the Legislative Council elections for a year, opening the possibility that the city's lawmaking body will operate without opposition parties in the coming year.
At least 15 out of 22 pro-democracy legislators have pledged to resign if more than half of their supporters call for the move in the survey, which is set to poll at least 2,000 Hong Kong residents over the next week. Only those voters who back the pro-democracy group, rather than a wider number of citizens, are eligible for the survey in order to prevent what the lawmakers describe as "deliberate interference" of pro-Beijing elements.
Opinions will be collected through phone calls from respondents who state that they are pro-democracy supporters.
The issue of legislators keeping their seats during the provisional term introduced by Beijing has been the subject of much controversy among supporters of pro-democracy politicians.
China's top lawmaking body, the National People's Congress Standing Committee, said in August that all members of Hong Kong's legislature, including four sitting pro-democracy lawmakers who had been disqualified from running for reelection, would retain their seats for "not less than" another year. That decision was seen as a compromise gesture by Beijing.
While moderate lawmakers have said they intend to remain in the Legislative Council, younger members of pro-democracy parties have increasingly called for a collective boycott in defiance of the government's decision to delay the elections.
"We hope that the poll can end the divide in public opinion," said Wu Chi-wai, the chairman of the Democratic Party, the largest opposition party in Hong Kong, which had earlier decided to stay for the extended term. "All lawmakers from our party will listen to the views of our voters and abide by the poll results."
Ma Ngok, an associate professor in politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the survey will allow pro-democracy lawmakers to gauge public opinion before making a decision. "If most of their supporters want them to leave, their work in LegCo will not be recognized by their voters either," he said.
According to an earlier survey conducted by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, more than 60% of the pro-democracy camp's supporters believe that the lawmakers should boycott the coming legislative term -- which begins on Oct. 14 -- while only 19% said they should remain in the Legislative Council.
The institute will work with the Chinese University of Hong Kong for the poll and announce the results before the Legislative Council term expires at the end of September. Before the survey began, two independent pro-democracy lawmakers already declared that they will resign from the legislature.
"If we accept Beijing's terms, the Communist Party will come up with other excuses to keep extending the legislative elections," Eddie Chu Hoi-dick wrote on his Facebook page. "A boycott can pressure Beijing to allow Hong Kong to resume the election."
Ray Chan Chi-chuen, another pro-democracy lawmaker, has also said he will boycott the term extension and urged other lawmakers to do the same, saying the extended term is constitutionally illegitimate.
On the flip side, moderate members insist that remaining in the legislature will be essential to resisting the government. "If there's no opposition voice in council, all these highly controversial bills will be passed easily," Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu said.
The Hong Kong government has passed several controversial bills, such as the national anthem law, in the current legislative term. The absence of all pro-democracy lawmakers would make it even easier for the government to pass more controversial measures, including a 600 billion Hong Kong dollar ($77.4 billion) land reclamation project.
Yet, some voters believe that the pro-democracy camp -- being the minority in the semi-democratically elected chamber -- would not be able to block government bills even if they all stay, while resigning from the legislature could highlight the government's lack of legitimate authority.
"If the LegCo still functions, they could have stopped the extradition bill last year and there wouldn't have been huge protests," said one pro-democracy supporter, a 30-year-old accountant named Lee.
Meanwhile, Ma of Chinese University said pro-democracy politicians might not be able to raise public awareness toward controversial laws if there are only pro-Beijing lawmakers serving in the Legislative Council in the coming year.
"In the past, pro-democracy lawmakers could adopt filibustering strategies and buy more time for discussion," he said. "That window will be closed if none of them stay."
Prior to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam's move to postpone the Sept. 6 legislative poll, citing concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, more than 600,000 people had participated in the pro-democracy camp's primary election, hoping to choose the strongest candidates for the group to win a majority of seats for the first time and boost its leverage against the government.
The huge momentum, however, prompted Beijing to step up its suppression of opposition figures in the former British colony. The Hong Kong government disqualified 12 pro-democracy candidates, including activist Joshua Wong and the four sitting lawmakers, from the election.
Opposition hopefuls Nathan Law and Sunny Cheung Kwan-yang have fled the city in light of a new national security law. They both have actively engaged in international advocacy work for Hong Kong's democratic movement and lobbied foreign governments to sanction local officials.
The sweeping national security law, imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing at the end of June, carries criminal penalties of up to life imprisonment for those found guilty of separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers. Critics say the legislation could be used to crackdown on dissidents.