Hong Kong’s Legislative Council blocked Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching—two newly elected pro-independence lawmakers—from taking oath and assuming office on Wednesday Oct. 19 until the completion of a judicial review of their qualification for office. The first time the two had taken their oaths, they swore allegiance to a “Hong-Kong nation” and mentioned “Shina” instead of “China.” This offended many individuals, and caused the government to declare their oaths invalid. This week, the two were prevented from entering the chamber during session.
As our election season reaches its climax, taking the partisan conflicts of other countries seriously is becoming difficult. This confrontation, however, knocked me out of my Americentrism for a moment.
Tensions have been high between the pro-democracy faction and the Beijing loyalists ever since the 2014 Umbrella Revolution. The loyalists see these legislators’ actions as an insult to China and the nationalism they cherish, while democratic activists see their interests being ground to dust under the heel of the Beijing Politburo.
Still, while both sides can disagree about the interpretation, something objectively serious is happening in this situation: the Hong Kong government—backed undoubtedly by Beijing—is violating the separation of powers and blatantly attempting to prevent its elected political opponents from assuming office.
Since its reacquisition by China in 1997, Hong Kong has been placed on a path away from democracy, but its death is far from inevitable. With every shock like this, they have to wonder if their democracy is ruined. This puts some of the dire warnings about the United States into context—and offers some comparisons to similar threats to democracy.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has refused to say that he would concede the results of our presidential election if he were to lose. He has also promised to, as president, use the legal system to jail his political opponent.
Critics say that these comments constitute an attack on our democracy. They overlook the fact that—like much about Trump—these statements are bluster and he has committed no actions on this front. Not actively being a dictator, however, does not get him off the hook. Trump’s statements may be just the specter of authoritarianism, but the fact that such political stunts actually take place regularly in other parts of the world—such as Hong Kong—make his statements an even more serious offense.
American democracy has survived exactly by avoiding such in-fighting and by trusting in its institutions. President Barack Obama has faced some of the worst partisanship in modern American political history, yet when there was a problem with his 2008 oath, he was allowed to retake it in 2009.
American history is not perfect, of course. We have not always been completely faithful to all the institutions of our government, either. President Abraham Lincoln once had the entire legislature of Maryland arrested and suspended their right to habeas corpus in order to prevent Maryland from seceding from the Union.
The Hong Kong Legislative Council’s move to block pro-independence legislators was similarly a shallowly justified political maneuver. Yet, American democracy survived this encroachment of partisanship on its governing apparatus. If there’s hope for us, there’s still hope for Hong Kong.