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Hong Kong purges last opposition voice from legislature

Cheng Chung-tai found to have failed to uphold city's constitution

Cheng Chung-tai shows reporters the official notice of his disqualification on Aug. 26.   © AP

HONG KONG -- The Hong Kong government has purged the last remaining opposition voice from the city's legislature amid a deepening crackdown on dissent.

"We have come to the determination that Cheng Chung-tai hasn't fulfilled the legal requirement of upholding the Basic Law and bearing allegiance to the Hong Kong SAR," Chief Secretary John Lee said on Thursday, referring to the constitution of the Chinese special administrative region.

A committee led by Lee has been reviewing applicants for the Election Committee, which itself will screen legislative candidates as well as choose 40 of its members for the city's expanded 90-seat legislature.

In disqualifying Cheng from the Election Committee seat reserved for him as a current legislator, Lee said he would also be ejected from the Legislative Council with immediate effect, in line with guidelines from China's National People's Congress.

"It's a pity that I can't stay in Legco," Cheng, 37, said to reporters after Lee's news conference. "But we believe if you want to build a better Hong Kong, as I said before, you can always find your role."

Neither Lee nor Cheng revealed the grounds for his disqualification, though both said Cheng was given a chance to address officials' concerns.

The NPC's guidance was used last year to evict four opposition legislators who had earlier been disqualified from seeking reelection, also on the basis that they were not upholding the Basic Law. After that, 15 others resigned in protest. Six bloc members had been unseated earlier.

With his colleagues gone, Cheng has often been the lone voice of dissent in recent months as government proposals have sailed through the assembly.

Pierre Chan, the elected representative for medical sector workers, is now the only remaining legislator who does not caucus with pro-government parties. Chan reportedly did not register for the Election Committee, so did not go through the screening that eliminated Cheng.

Earlier this year, the NPC overhauled Hong Kong's political system to ensure opposition voices would not regain influence.

A new multilevel candidate screening system involving national security police and government ministers is to vet hopefuls for their patriotism while the number of popularly elected legislators was cut from 40 to 20, even as 20 new seats were added to the 70-member body. Elected neighborhood council representatives lost their seats on the Election Committee.

Qualified electors -- now mostly corporations or social organizations -- who can vote for Election Committee members will go to the polls to fill the 412 contested seats on the 1,500-member body on Sept. 19. Legislative elections, which were originally slated for last September, will instead take place on Dec. 19.

Macao voters will go to the polls on Sept. 12 to choose legislators. The city's Electoral Affairs Commission earlier disqualified 21 candidates for not upholding Macao's Basic Law, including three incumbents.

Cheng's ejection comes amid a broad crackdown by authorities wielding a national security law imposed by the NPC last year, as well as British colonial-era sedition laws.

Dozens of opposition politicians have been convicted and imprisoned for involvement in unauthorized demonstrations during the 2019 anti-government protests, or have been jailed and denied bail while awaiting trial in relation to a legislative candidate selection primary held in July 2020, among other cases. Officials this week unveiled a draft bill to censor movies on national security grounds.

Cheng, who represents a Hong Kong district bordering Shenzhen, was the only candidate from the Civic Passion party elected in the last Legco polls in 2016. The party has long kept a distance from other opposition groups, focusing on issues such as immigration by mainland Chinese and problems attributed to mainland shoppers.

A motion to censure Cheng over a 2018 incident in which he turned over small Chinese and Hong Kong flags set on the desks of pro-government legislators failed to secure the needed two-thirds majority to pass.

Cheng was convicted of desecrating the official flags and fined 5,000 Hong Kong dollars ($642). He was also arrested in 2019 in relation to an incident where protesters forced their way into Legco's vacant chambers.

Additional reporting by Cora Zhu.

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