Hong Kong and the Controversial Security Bill

Henry Tang has Hong Kong’s property tycoons raising toasts to his probable coronation with what appears to be the overwhelming endorsement of Beijing and the territory’s oligarchs.

Tang’s opponent for the job, CY Leung, seems to be blocked out by the territory’s moneyed elite, who have largely built their wealth in the property market. Tang invested in public relations minders who conjured the non-slogan “We are Tomorrow,” not because he was in danger of being rejected but to gain traction in public polls where Leung is enjoying a massive lead.

There is greater public support for the candidate the tycoons do not like. The pretend election appears to be a farce even before it starts. Beijing has so far not overtly declared its preference. It initially found the idea of a competitive ‘election’ of two approved candidates a good diversion from an otherwise even sillier exercise.

Tang’s PR advisors have scheduled a series of photo-ops with actors, chambers of commerce, his alma mater and other friendlies to get him onto the front pages of press and TV news broadcasts. Leung has been doing the rounds of ‘ordinary’ people.

Neither candidate is able to articulate a coherent agenda when “elected” by a college of 1,200 functional constituency representatives and pro-Beijing compatriots. That is no surprise as they don’t answer to the people they are supposed to rule. Their agenda will come in a sealed brown envelope from Beijing.

Both candidates reported to the Beijing Liaison Office in the middle of their ‘campaigns’. This was monitored by Hong Kong’s media press and widely reported. Tang said he would go if invited and did - a day after he said there was no reason for him to visit the Liaison Office. Leung said it was quite routine and that he had been there many times over the years.

Headmaster at Beijing Liaison Office

If Hong Kong residents needed any reminder of where power really resides in the Special Administrative Region, that was it: both aspirants seeking approval, providing clarifications and receiving instructions from the Beijing Liaison Office. The headmaster sits there, not in Government House.

The views of 7 million Hong Kong citizens are irrelevant to this closed-door, small-circle exercise in anointing Beijing’s appointee.

As Beijing has delayed selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage till 2017, China’s leaders are watching the process of the people’s will being expressed in opinion polls with some curiosity, alarm and bewilderment.

It is said that Communist regimes would rather not rig elections but prefer to ensure their outcomes in advance. Russia was caught with Putin’s ‘United Russia’ ruling party agents rifling the ballot box recently. The mistake was in getting caught.

In District Board elections in November, there were allegations of numerous cases of vote-rigging and voter identity falsification, hinting at well-organized fraud. There is suspicion that the opaque “underground fronts” may have contributed expertise. Discovery of this activity has made the agents and their sponsors uncomfortable as the judicial system has the power to put these criminals in the dock with potentially damaging public disclosures.

The administration is leaning backwards. The press is watching the investigative process unfold with keen interest. The Democratic Party says it has received 800 reports of suspicious voter registration. The Independent Commission Against Corruption has arrested 22 people for corrupt conduct and charged six so far.

Hong Kong’s residents are generally sanguine about matters which are the purview of the civil service, the police and the courts. They trust their institutions of governance. They do not expect to be cheated and lied to. If their trust is betrayed, they can turn surprisingly hostile, as Tung Chee-hwa, the first chief executive, and Regina Ip, then Secretary for Security, discovered when they tried to ram a flawed Security Bill into law in 2003.

Time for mandatory voter registration

Because of this relaxed trust in the institutions of government, HK residents do not compulsively register to vote or exercise their right to vote. Societies of free speech, free press and respect for human rights are very fertile grounds for a committed band of organizers to take control by sheer default.

When well funded and driven by dedicated organizers sent from the mainland for ‘united front’ work (as it is euphemistically called) the territory faces the prospect of its schools, volunteer groups, youth organizations, charity societies, university bodies, worker unions, District Boards and Legislative Council being taken over by elected, hardworking cadres.

It would be in the interest of the Hong Kong SAR to introduce legislation to make it mandatory for all eligible residents to register and vote in local elections so the community is not politically hijacked by default. This should become a primary objective of the next administration as Hong Kong moves to elect its 2017 chief executive by universal suffrage.

Along with that, legislation should also be introduced for political parties to declare their sources of funding. It will be of interest to know how much money is being channeled to which political party and proxies from which sponsor. It is up to the citizens to then decide whom to vote for.

Under normal circumstances this would be relevant and vital information. However there is considerable fear that retribution will be visited on businessmen and other donors to democratic parties, so the administration would rather close an eye on the subject. Jimmy Lai’s donations to the Democratic & Civic Parties over the years raised considerable noise from the compatriots. The sponsorship from across the border to pro-Beijing parties and front organizations go without comment.

Whither Article 23 Security Bill?

Buried in all the pseudo-election distraction is the ominous Article 23 Security Bill. If the legislative council does not pass this into law within the life of the 2012 administration, it will be nearly impossible to pull the trick after 2017. There is no public discussion about it. There are fitful rumors about its revival and sundry ‘patriots’ lament its absence. The Macau SAR passed its Security Bill without fuss in 2009. There is agitation on the streets of Macau now for greater democracy.

Neither Henry Tang nor C Y Leung has declared a clear position on it. When asked, they waffle. Given the unequivocal Hong Kong rejection in 2003, when a million people took to the streets in protest of an alignment to mainland style criminalization of freedoms of assembly, expression, press and guaranteed human rights, no candidate for chief executive in 2017 would be elected if his platform compromised the freedoms and rights HK people take for granted.

It is not mere coincidence that the Secretary for Constitutional & Mainland Affairs, Stephen Lam Sui-lung, was selected ahead of more suitable policy secretaries, to replace Henry Tang as Chief Secretary. Lam is a critical piece on the chessboard.

In defending Lam’s appointment as Chief Secretary with the lowest public approval rating of any since 1997, Donald Tsang suggested that Lam’s love of Hong Kong is beyond question even if Hong Kong citizens rate him low.

Stephen Lam is surprisingly elevated to the most powerful position in Hong Kong’s civil service and nobody has explained why. It is a strategically calibrated move.

Lam distinguished himself in his previous position for attempting - without public consultation - to push a rule that a Legislative Council seat falling vacant due to resignation or death of a sitting member would be immediately replaced, without a by-election, by the candidate who secured the next highest number of votes in the last election!

This situation was forced by the Democrats resigning their seats to protest the continued stalling by the administration for full direct elections by 2012. About half the current LegCo seats are held by nominated ‘Functional Constituency’ representatives from corporate and other entities, many regarded ‘rotten boroughs’ created to stack the pro-Beijing deck.

It is not fanciful to expect the 2012 chief executive to be tasked with passing Article 23 into law. Stephen Lam will have a key role there. He will be the lightning rod to draw and earth the disgust of citizens.

The planned next phase of Article 23 is the clear and present danger to Hong Kong.