by Austin Ramsey
HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s pro-democracy lawmakers have lost two seats in the territory’s legislature, another setback for the bloc whose members were previously disqualified after modifying their oaths of office to defy Beijing.
While the pro-democracy camp widely anticipated losing one of the four vacated seats up for a vote in Sunday’s by-election, a second loss, by a margin of just over 1 percent after a recount, was a less expected and more painful blow.
The vote came on the same day that China’s Communist Party-controlled legislature approved a measure to drop term limits for president, clearing the way for President Xi Jinping to rule indefinitely.
Hong Kong’s democracy advocates framed the vote in the semiautonomous territory as a way to stand up to the authoritarianism of China’s central government. What they were left with, however, was a further erosion of their already limited power.
Half of the seats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council are directly elected by voters in geographic constituencies, while the other half are so-called functional constituencies, largely composed of industry groups that lean toward the establishment.
For decades, democracy advocates have been pushing for more representative democracy in Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese control in 1997. After street protests and sit-ins in 2014 failed to win any major concessions, young protest leaders decided to run for office themselves. Several won seats in 2016, but since then they have been increasingly isolated by legal maneuvering from the government.
Edward Yiu, who won the functional constituency representing the architectural, surveying, planning and landscape industries in 2016, was one of six legislators removed from office for modifying the oath of office. In his case, Yiu added a clause saying he would fight for the law, sustainable development and “true democracy.”
He sought to redeem that disqualification by pursuing a seat representing the Kowloon West district. He ended up losing to Vincent Cheng by just over 1 percent after an early morning recount on Monday.
The functional constituency seat that Yiu was forced out of was won by Tony Tse, a pro-establishment candidate. Yiu defeated Tse in 2016 after another candidate siphoned off some of the pro-Beijing vote.
Government officials also barred at least three pro-democracy candidates from running in the by-election over accusations that they supported Hong Kong independence or similar ideas. One of those barred candidates, Agnes Chow, was a student leader during the 2014 protests known as the Umbrella Movement and one of the democracy movement’s most visible young politicians.
The candidate who replaced her, Au Nok-hin, won a seat representing Hong Kong Island, defeating the pro-establishment candidate Judy Chan.
The removal of legislators and the barring of candidates to replace them generated widespread criticism of Hong Kong elections. The London-based rights group Hong Kong Watch said the Sunday election was “tainted by government-sanctioned political screening” and called on the government to reinstate the disqualified lawmakers.