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China Bars 2 Newly Elected Hong Kong Legislators From Office

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We're going to go now from one raucous democracy, the U.S., to another, Hong Kong. That's where two newly elected lawmakers refuse to swear allegiance to Beijing when they took their oaths of office. Now, the Chinese government has ruled the two will not be allowed to retake their oaths, which means they are effectively barred from office. It's a shocking intervention after years in which Beijing allowed Hong Kong to function with a great degree of autonomy. NPR's Rob Schmitz joined us from Shanghai to talk more about this.

Good morning.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Give us a little background on this particular situation.

SCHMITZ: So this all started a month ago when two young lawmakers who were taking their oaths of office refused to pledge allegiance to the People's Republic of China. And that's been a requirement of all Hong Kong lawmakers since Britain handed over Hong Kong back to China 20 years ago. Instead, these two legislators inserted language like the Hong Kong nation and used four-letter words in English that I cannot say on the radio when they were supposed to say China. Here is one example from Yau Wai-ching, who is only 25 years old who, when she was asked to take her oath, inserted her own colorful language, and here's what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YAU WAI-CHING: I will uphold the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's [expletive] not bear allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's [expletive] of...

(LAUGHTER)

SCHMITZ: So as you can imagine, this did not go over well with the pro-Beijing members of Hong Kong's government. And there's been a legal battle ever since to determine whether the two would become legislators or not. Yesterday's decision by the National People's Congress of China put an end to all of this. In what is a rare intervention into a matter like this, Beijing has said the two legislators who were both democratically elected may not retake their oaths and effectively will not become legislators.

MONTAGNE: Well, of course, for years, China's government has allowed people in Hong Kong the freedom to protest, to hold democratic elections. Why did Beijing intervene this time around? I mean, was it the obscenities?

SCHMITZ: That had a lot to do with it, and you're right. Even though Britain handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, Beijing, at that time, agreed to ensure the people of Hong Kong special freedoms and autonomy for the next 50 years. And these rights were laid out in the city's own mini-constitution called the Basic Law known as the one China, two systems model. That formula has been under a lot of stress lately. Two years ago, tens of thousands of young people shut down the city's financial district for weeks in democracy protests known as the Umbrella Movement.

And this fall, several of these young activists have won local elections. So when a few of these new legislators insulted China during their oaths of office, this went too far for Beijing. China's government has essentially used this controversy to issue a rare reinterpretation of Hong Kong's Basic Law so that this kind of thing won't happen again but also to show the people of Hong Kong that the government of China has the power to disqualify anyone in Hong Kong's government who is not loyal to China.

MONTAGNE: So people there in Hong Kong are protesting this. That's how they're reacting.

SCHMITZ: They are. Sunday night, thousands of people flooded into the streets in front of the Chinese government's liaison office in Hong Kong to protest. Police in riot gear scuffled with them using pepper spray, and protesters fought back by throwing bricks. Four people were arrested. Two police officers were injured. The government has just deployed 2,000 police throughout the city for the next week, anticipating more violence. And it's likely we will see more protests in the days and weeks to come.

One well-known politician in Hong Kong summed up the mood in an op-ed yesterday that Beijing interfering like this in the city's political process essentially means what she calls the beginning of the end for Hong Kong. And this goes beyond politics, though. You know, Hong Kong is one of the great financial centers of Asia, and the banks that do business there do so because the city has a stable and safe system in place. That, of course, is in question now, and the current political mood is not having a positive impact on the business climate at all.

MONTAGNE: Well, thanks very much.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz speaking to us from Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.