HONG KONG – Clashes broke out in Hong Kong’s legislature Monday for a second time this month as a pro-Beijing lawmaker was elected as chair of a key committee that scrutinizes bills, ending a prolonged struggle for control with the pro-democracy camp.
The legislature’s House Committee, which vets bills and decides when to present them for a final vote, had been without a chairperson for more than six months. The central government in Beijing criticized deputy chairperson and pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok for deliberately delaying matters and causing a backlog of bills that affect public interest.
Kwok was replaced Friday by Chan Kin-por, who was appointed by the legislature’s president to preside over Monday’s election. After scuffles and shouting matches led to Chan ejecting most of the pro-democracy lawmakers, the election took place, with pro-Beijing lawmaker Starry Lee winning easily.
Her election will likely speed up the passing of a controversial bill that would criminalize abuse of the Chinese national anthem. Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, said last week that passing the bill was a priority for the government, and the bill will be presented to the committee on May 27.
The move “highlights how Beijing aims to reassert control over Hong Kong,” said political and corporate risk consultant Steve Vickers, the CEO of Steve Vickers and Associates. Besides the anthem bill, he noted a recent call by the Chinese central government's top representative in Hong Kong to enact a national security law.
At Monday’s meeting, pro-democracy lawmakers held up placards that read “Abuse of Power” and “CCP tramples HK legislature,” referring to China's ruling Communist Party. Within minutes, at least five lawmakers were ejected for disorderly behavior, with at least one lying injured on the ground as the meeting was briefly suspended.
“Hong Kong is marching toward the beginning of the end of ‘one country, two systems’,” pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo aid after the meeting ended.
The former British colony was returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” framework that gives Hong Kong its own legal system and greater rights than in the mainland.
Mo urged Hong Kong residents to vote out those who “don’t care about Hong Kong’s future” in the legislative elections in September.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan accused security guards at Hong Kong’s legislature of “losing their impartiality,” after the guards surrounded the bench where the chairperson was seated and prevented pro-democracy lawmakers from getting close.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Martin Liao said the opposition camp had “assaulted some of the security officers” and disrupted “legitimate” election proceedings.
Lawmakers clashed over the same issue on May 8, when Lee occupied the chairperson’s seat more than an hour before the meeting was scheduled to start, saying that external legal counsel had advised that she had the power to preside over House Committee meetings.
Pro-democracy lawmakers accused her of abusing her power and staged a walkout, leaving Lee and the pro-Beijing camp to clear several bills.
Also Monday, 15 pro-democracy figures, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai, appeared in court to face charges relating to months of anti-government protests last year sparked by an extradition bill that has since been withdrawn. The bill would have allowed residents of Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory, to be sent to mainland to stand trial.
Lai, whose Apple Daily newspaper is critical of the Communist Party, and former lawmaker Martin Lee stood together as they tried to get through a media scrum outside the court in West Kowloon district. They and the other activists were arrested on April 18.
“We want to announce to the world that the root of disturbance in Hong Kong is the Chinese Communist Party, destroying, interfering with ‘one country, two systems,’" activist Lee Cheuk-yan said as the group stood together before going in.
Vickers, the consultant, said some see the arrests as an attempt to neutralize key opposition leaders ahead of the legislative elections in September.
Associated Press videojournalist Alice Fung contributed to this report.