How Tennessee Republicans Mirror China’s Authoritarians

As much of the country reacted with horror and dismay at Tennessee’s expulsion of two Democratic legislators for protesting for gun control within the House chambers, many commentators found no precedent for such an action in response to an act of political protest.

Only twice before in the history of Tennessee had a House member been expelled—but never before for an act of political protest. The Washington Post called it a “historic act of political retaliation.” Both lawmakers, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, have now been reinstated.

Audio recordings recently released by the Tennessee Holler have revealed Republican in-fighting over the episode.

President Biden said the initial expulsions was “shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent.” But there is a comparable precedent with many parallels. It happened in 2016 when Hong Kong authorities, under the direction of the Chinese Communist Party, expelled six pro-democracy lawmakers for their acts of protest within the legislative chamber. Examining the similarities between these two cases demonstrates why this act of political retaliation is so dangerous and destabilizing.

In the 2016 episode, Hong Kong’s Justice Department filed suits against the six pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, which led to their expulsion from the legislature. Their supposed offense? Each of the legislators had engaged in a different piece of performance theatrics during their swearing-in ceremony. They did this as a means of protest against Beijing’s efforts to prevent the city from enjoying democratic freedoms–such as multi-party elections and the freedom to peacefully protest. The Chinese Communist Party used these protests on the Council floor as a pretext to remove these legislators–all of whom were seen as influential members of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement–from power.

One legislator, Lau Siu-Lai, read the oath of office incredibly slowly, taking 10 minutes to say 77 words. Two others, Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Leung, changed some of the text of the oath–including inserting a derogatory term for China–and unfurled banners imprinted with “Hong Kong is Not China” in the legislative chambers. A fourth legislator, Leung Kwok-hung—a stalwart of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement affectionately known to his supporters as “Long Hair”—held up a yellow umbrella as he read, a symbol of solidarity with Hong Kong’s massive “Umbrella Movement” protests for universal suffrage. A fifth,’ Edward Yiu, added a promise to his oath to “fight for universal suffrage.”

For the Chinese Communist Party and their supporting officials in Hong Kong, the Council chamber protests were apparently a slap in the face—as well as an opportunity to defang some of their most prominent critics. The city courts, hearing the cases, expelled two of the legislators and declared the four others as disqualified from the office.

In fact, the bans may have come from Hong Kong authorities, but they were ordered by Beijing, with the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, delivering their interpretation of the oath-taking requirement to Hong Kong’s courts and obligating them to follow it. That is to say, that Hong Kong authorities were essentially ordered to prosecute and persecute the lawmakers, by CCP leaders who saw democracy as a threat to their power.

Just as Tennessee’s Republican legislators are doing now, the Hong Kong authorities released a series of statements concerning the cases, denying that the expulsions were politically motivated. The judges who approved the disbarments went out of their way to argue that it was the decorum and honor of the legislative chambers that they were protecting.

In one ruling, the judge argued that one disbarred legislator, Long Hair, went “well outside an objective reasonable range of requisite solemnity and sincerity.” Another judge, ruling on the two expelled members, Yau and Leung, said that they had made a “willful and deliberate attempt” to “insult” China.

Tennessee Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who argued that the expelled Democrats had broken “several rules of decorum and procedure on the House floor,” may recognize a kindred spirit in these judges.

It is dispiriting and disheartening to see Tennessee’s legislators treading a road most often traveled by authoritarians and their enablers.

In the face of the Hong Kong expulsions, the human rights community reacted with grave warnings. Mabel Au, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, for example, said the decision was the “latest damaging sign that expressing political opinions that challenge the status quo are no longer tolerated.”

The expulsions, widely seen at the time as a brazen attempt by China to force political compliance on Hong Kong legislators resistant to Beijing’s authoritarian rule, were followed by an increasing, years-long crackdown on civil and political rights that culminated in the 2020 National Security Law which has stripped millions of Hong Kongers of many basic freedoms.

As part of this crackdown, Beijing has been even more muscular in forcing its Hong Kong counterparts to remove pro-democracy lawmakers, forcing Hong Kong officials to purge legislators for their policies or human rights criticisms. Other pro-democracy legislators have been targeted for dubious criminal charges. The CCP also fundamentally reshaped Hong Kong’s electoral process, introducing a “patriots” test that serves as a de facto bar against pro-democracy candidates. All this is to say—one legislative purge can help open the door to further purges.

It is dispiriting and disheartening to see Tennessee’s legislators treading a road most often traveled by authoritarians and their enablers. And just as the human rights community condemned the 2016 legislative expulsions in Hong Kong, we should do the same here. Political retaliation is dangerous, destabilizing–and has no place in a democracy.

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