Fool’s Gold

I never thought the words would come out of my mouth, and I hesitate to write them even now but here goes: the returning officer for Kowloon West was probably right to disqualify Lau Siu Lai from running in the upcoming by-election. Moreover the pan democratic camp is likely to be the biggest beneficiary of his decision.

Lau’s disclaimer – that she has retreated from both independence and self-determination – is too abrupt to be credible. The pan dems need someone untainted by either brush to win back the seat and strengthen progressive forces in Legco.

The fact is "self-determination" is a distraction just as the hallucination of independence was a distraction. It is a dead end, a political cul de sac. Following the cause will only lead to thousands of talented young people, passionate about Hong Kong as they may be, wasting their time and energy. We all need to focus on what is achievable, and set about improving our city’s future in a practical way.

Let us remind ourselves what its proponents mean by "self-determination". The idea is that in the run-up to 2047, when the assurances about Hong Kong’s future expire, it should be for Hongkongers alone to determine what should happen thereafter, and one of the options on the table – albeit only one – would be independence.

There are three elements to this line of thinking, and all three are fundamentally flawed. First, as I have pointed out before, the Basic Law itself has no expiry date. Like all legislation everywhere, absent an explicit and unambiguous sunset clause, it continues in force until repealed or amended by the body that made the law in the first place, in this case the National People’s Congress. While the promise in Article 5 – that the capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years – expires, the law is silent on what happens thereafter and indeed the rest of the Articles are not time-limited.

Secondly, any decision on Hong Kong’s future will be taken by all the people of China – all 1.4 billion, through their representatives – and not just by the seven million odd residents of the SAR. So we will have a voice, we will get our say, but we do not have a veto on the outcome.

And finally, independence is never going to be on the table as one of the options, and it is futile to think it ever will. Article 1 of the Basic Law could hardly be clearer, and contrary to what Andy Chan Ho Tin said at the FCC in answer to a question from the floor, the Basic Law does apply to Hong Kong and is supremely relevant.

So how do we build a better future for Hong Kong? We have to start by accepting that now and forever more we are part of China. Only if we embrace that principle wholeheartedly – not just mouthing the words, but actually believing it – will we have the right mindset to begin to shape our future in a sustainable and positive way.

Having shed the cloak of self-deception, we can see right away that the first priority is for us to become much better at handling the relationship with the Central People’s Government. To do that there are two absolutes: one is that we should continue to be useful to the nation in terms of its economic and political development; the other is that we should never be seen as a base for subversion.

Boiled down to its essence, what our idealistic young people are saying is that they enjoy the freedoms and way of life we experience at the moment, and do not want that quality put at risk. The best outcome for them then, indeed for all of us, is that the One Country, Two Systems formula should endure in perpetuity. In order to secure support for that proposition from the CPG, we need to box much cleverer. We must learn how to stand up for ourselves without appearing to confront Beijing.

Before we leave the subject of candidate disqualification, we do need to consider what is to become of those who have painted themselves into an impossible independence or self-determination corner. It is widely understood that young people, in their late teens or early twenties, sometimes attach themselves to sincere causes expressed in emphatic and absolute terms. As they grow older, and mature, their thinking develops and they begin to acquire fresh perspectives. Don’t just take my word for it: many political thinkers have said something similar, the one I remember being former French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. We must provide a road back into the political mainstream for principled and able persons. Otherwise we will be denied forever political talents like Nathan Law and Agnes Chow.

Lau’s case is rather different: until very recently she was espousing views incompatible with the Basic Law , allegiance to which all Legco Members must swear. This was no youthful indiscretion on her part as she is already over 40 and holds a senior academic position, so her concrete is well set. I am afraid her Damascene conversion has come too late.

There are still some procedural issues left hanging: should the returning officer have interviewed the candidate to give her a chance to explain her change of views (probably yes); is it right to leave such decisions to relatively junior officers (probably not). These will need to be addressed. But the main conclusion is that it must be for a different pan dem to carry the flag into the by-election next month. Let us wish him good luck.