The move triggered an opposition press conference late on Wednesday night in which all 19 members of the opposition announced they would resign, leaving Hong Kong with a rubber stamp legislature and no opposing voices for the first time since the Legislative Council was established in 1843.
On Thursday, as a final act of defiance before handing in their resignation letters, opposition MPs staged a final in-chamber protest.
“I suppose this is my last protest in Legco,” opposition member Lam Cheuk-ting said after unfurling a protest banner vilifying the city’s leader, Carrie Lam.
The opposition politician had briefly displayed the banner from the building’s second floor, with the message: “Carrie Lam is corrupting Hong Kong and hurting its people; She will stink for 10,000 years.”
The city’s chief executive was not in the assembly at the time.
Senator Payne called on authorities to allow the Legislative Council, which is dominated by pro-Beijing appointees, to fulfil its role as the primary forum for popular political expression in Hong Kong.
“Beijing’s disqualification of duly elected Legislative Council lawmakers seriously undermines Hong Kong’s democratic processes and institutions, as well as the high degree of autonomy set out in the Basic Law and Sino-British Joint Declaration,” she said.
“Australia and the international community will continue to monitor developments closely and maintain a consistent focus on human rights and the principles of freedom, transparency, autonomy and the rule of law.”
The Chinese embassy said in a statement on Thursday that it strongly deplored Senator Payne’s comments. “Those who break the law must be held accountable, which is the basic principle of any law-based society,” a spokesman said. “No other country has the right to make irresponsible remarks or intervene in the matter.”
Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-Wai said on Wednesday the model that guaranteed Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy from the mainland after the British handover in 1997 was finished.
“We can no longer tell the world that we still have one country, two systems. This declares its official death,” he said.
Australian MP Gladys Liu, who was born and grew up in Hong Kong, said she was saddened by the move as it meant “the democracy that I enjoyed is disappearing”.
“For Beijing to disendorse elected members of the Legislative Council, it is actually doing damage to the Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
Labor MP Kimberley Kitching, the co-chair of the Australian arm of the International Parliamentary Alliance on China, said the expulsion of the legislators of the legislators was further proof Beijing had no intention of honouring the one country, two systems agreement.
“Australia must be a strong voice in standing up for the international order, and for the democratic values that we in this country hold so dear, as do the people of Hong Kong.”
Liberal MP Tim Wilson said the move demonstrated “there is now as much tolerance for diversity of opinion about governance in Hong Kong as there is in Beijing”.
And Liberal senator James Paterson said the expulsion “validates the well-founded fears of the world about the deeply troubling approach the Chinese Communist Party is taking to Hong Kong”.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the four members of the opposition, Kwok Ka-Ki, Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwok and Kenneth Leung, had been disqualified because they had breached new national security laws imposed by Beijing in June.
“We could not allow members of a Legislative Council who have been judged in accordance with the law that they could not fulfil the requirement and the prerequisite for serving on the Legislative Council to continue to operate,” she said.
The laws were imposed after 15 months of protests over Beijing’s rising influence.
The laws punish dissent or threats to the Chinese state with sentences of up to life in prison.
Dozens of activists, journalists and political operatives have since been arrested for unauthorised assembly, colluding with foreign forces or endangering national security since, as Beijing installs its own security services in the global financial hub.
The disqualifications and resignations could trigger further unrest on Thursday as opposition lawmakers remain popular with pro-democracy voters across the city.
In July, more than 600,000 voters earlier cast their ballots in unofficial primaries despite warnings they were breaching new national security laws. The Hong Kong government then delayed the election scheduled for September until next year due to the coronavirus.
Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Canberra.
James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions, won a Kennedy Award for outstanding foreign correspondent and is the author of The Great Cave Rescue.