Tensions between Hong Kong’s two competing forces reached another flashpoint after pro-Beijing lawmakers took control of a key legislative committee Monday.
The legislature’s House Committee, which scrutinizes bills and decides whether they can be put before a final vote, has been run for several months by the committee’s deputy chairman, pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok. Beijing has accused Kwok of blocking numerous bills from going to the full legislature for a vote, including a bill that will make it a criminal offense to disrespect China’s national anthem.
Chaos erupted in the chamber last Friday between pro-democracy lawmakers and pro-Beijing lawmakers when the pro-Beijing faction took control of the committee through use of a legal opinion. The scene repeated itself Monday many members of the pro-democracy group were dragged out of the chamber by security guards shortly before a pro-Beijing lawmaker, Starry Lee, was elected the committee’s chair.
The takeover will now allow the panel to push forward the proposed national anthem law, which calls for anyone who intentionally insults the anthem, by booing or any other means, to face up to three years in prison and fines of more than $6,000.
The bill was introduced last year in response to fans regularly booing the anthem during soccer matches.
As the battle flared in the legislative chamber Monday, 15 pro-democracy figures, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai, were in court to face charges for organizing and taking part in massive and often violent anti-government protests that engulfed the semi-autonomous city the last half of 2019. The demonstrations were initially sparked by a controversial extradition bill but evolved into a demand for greater democracy.
The protests came to halt after the coronavirus outbreak that began in mainland China late last year spread into Hong Kong, but have sporadically resumed in recent days as the outbreak subsided.
Hong Kong enjoys a high degree of autonomy under the concept of “one country, two systems,” since Britain handed the territory back to Beijing in 1997. But many Hong Kongers fear that autonomy is steadily being eroded by a central government that is increasingly meddling in its affairs.