Democracy No Longer Welcome in Hong Kong

The Hong Kong government, seemingly ignoring both the law and principle, is moving the territory towards Beijing’s ultimate goal: a de facto end to the separation of powers between executive, legislature and judiciary supposedly enshrined in the Basic Law, the mini-constitution under which Hong Kong is supposed to be self-governing in matters other than defense and foreign affairs.

In the latest move, announced on Jan. 27, a young activist member of the Demosisto Party, Agnes Chow Ting, was barred from participating in a by-election for a Legislative Council seat. The Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, insisted that that she could not interfere with the decision, made by a low-ranking bureaucrat obviously acting under instruction from superiors.

The rejected candidate stood a reasonable chance of winning a seat previously held by one of the democratically elected members, last year removed from Legco on the basis of retroactive decisions by the National People’s Congress (NPC) which were then implemented by the local judiciary under pressure from the Hong Kong government for actions which would exclude several pro-democracy politicians from political life.

The system has since been used to bar the democracy camp’s chosen (via a primary) candidate for a by-election to fill one of the seats vacated as a result of earlier decisions, and there are fears of others being banned too. All this is based on supposed statements or sentiments which appear not to be sufficiently committed to One Country sovereignty. In the case of Agnes Chow, it was claimed that her party’s support for “democratic self-determination” was contrary to the Basic Law.

Meanwhile decisions on other pro-democracy activists who filed to fight by-election seats are awaited. One, 54-year-old academic Edward Yiu Chung-yim was chosen in a democratic primary to fight for a West Kowloon seat after being disqualified last year from his Legco seat for not properly taking his oath of office. However, it was announced on Jan. 30 that Yiu would be allowed to stand as a candidate, possibly in response to Chung’s disbarment. The prerogative of a bureaucrat who checks nominations to make them on political grounds and assuming a quasi judicial role remains shocking, however.

Last year’s removal from office of several elected pro-democracy legislators, and long delays in holding by-elections, have given the government side the vote necessary to change the legislature’s procedural rules to limit debates and to purpose amendments to new laws.

Acting on what were clearly instructions from Beijing, the government has also pushed through a bill that is widely seen as directly contrary to the basic Law. This effectively cedes part of Hong Kong’s own territory to Beijing. A part of the station being built in Kowloon for the new high-speed rail line linking Hong Kong to the mainland high-speed rail system is to be handed over, to be controlled by mainland officials and where mainland laws apply.

This is defended on the grounds that it is simply a practical measure that has no wide implications for the territory. Other jurisdictions allow, for convenience, immigration and customs officials from neighbors operating in their territory. The US has such personnel at Canadian airports and in Europe they are often in evidence on cross-border trains. But none of these involves wholesale transfer of legal rights or sovereignty of territory.

The fact of the matter, as some Beijing mouthpieces acknowledge, is that this is viewed as a “matter of state” so Hong Kong must obey, regardless of the Basic Law. Indeed, it is ever clearer that Hongkong’s supposed autonomy can be undermined at any time the NPC wills, laying down whatever interpretation it puts on the Basic Law, or leaning on the government and its now pliant legislature and pressurizing the judiciary via NPC decisions to do the job for it.

The government has become so arrogant that it has brushed aside public demands, including from some of its own supporters, for failing to sack a recently appointed Secretary for Justice, Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah. This person has now three times in a matter of days been seen to act in ways which showed her to be, at best, greedy and possibly criminally dishonest.

In the first instance it was found that the house she owned had large unreported illegal structures. So too did the adjoining house owned by her husband, a senior engineer. She claimed that it was there when she bought the house and was unaware of was illegal structures. But few believe this explanation given that Cheng, who is qualified as an engineer as well as lawyer, is the author of a book on building codes and the law “Construction Law and Practice in Hongkong.” The book noted that ignorance was no excuse. She is also a former member of the tribunal hearing appeals on Buildings Department issues such as allegedly illegal structures.

Next it was found that Cheng had more recently bought another property, also with unreported illegal structures od which she claimed to be unaware. Worse still from a public perspective, although already owning other properties, she had bought this one claiming it to be her only one, thus avoiding several million Hongkong dollars in stamp duties applied to purchase of second properties.

Cheng appeared just within the law as her other properties were in the name of a company she controlled, not her own name. But it was clearly aimed at evading the intent of the stamp duty law. The sight of a very rich lawyer who resorted to such maneuvers was particularly infuriating for a public suffering from very high property prices and apartment shortages. But who in Beijing or the Hong Kong government cares about fitness to be termed Secretary for Justice, if she is suitably obedient to their political demands?