This year’s policy address, to be given sooner or later by chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, has the potential to be a disaster or a triumph. The Hong Kong political climate is rather fragile at the moment, the customary damp squib will not be sufficient. Hong Kong badly needs a roaring success.
The temptation will be to opt for the safe ground. Emphasising the need to continue to control the pandemic is an obvious choice. Playing up the need to revive the economy and stressing the opportunities available in the Greater Bay Area is another area worthy of mention.
But important though both these subjects are, addressing them is not the most urgent need: The number one priority must be to re-establish communication with the wider local community, and in particular our young people. The huge numbers who marched peacefully on two consecutive Sundays in June last year were a reflection of the estrangement between the government and the people. It was not just the immediate concern over the detail of the extradition legislation, but also a sense that the people were not being listened to, indeed that our opinion didn’t count for anything. How else to interpret the bare 20-day consultation period allowed for an important piece of legislation, than as a contempt for ordinary citizens on the part of the political hierarchy.
As far as our young people are concerned, the estrangement goes even further back, at least to the Occupy saga of 2014. I recall a scene in the first few days when roads near the Hong Kong Club in Central were blocked by students sitting peacefully and then Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah walked past. I remember asking myself “Why doesn’t he just sit down in the road and talk to them?” By lending an ear to those desperate to be heard, could he have made a difference? The gesture might also have had an impact on the 2017 chief executive election. But he walked on by and the chance was gone.
In her next policy address, Lam must stress the door to political reform is still open. Her credibility here is in question – remember the stony-faced meeting with students when as chief secretary she “consulted” them on the 2014 package. But while she is bound by the “choice among Beijing pre-approved candidates” mandated by the Central government, she can and should offer compromises in terms of the membership of the selection/nominating committee, and improvements on the representativeness of the legislature. There are many practical suggestions out there.
There is one other obvious way to reach out to the community, and that is by establishing an independent statutory commission of inquiry into the events of last summer. Some 10,000 people – many of them young students – have been arrested and are being brought before the courts for their role in events. So those responsible for the worst of the violence and vandalism on the protesters’ side are being held to account. But accountability is – or ought to be – a two-way street. Who is holding the administration and the police accountable for their errors of judgement and occasional incidents of excessive force? I think people can appreciate that at a time when there was widespread disorder the administration stood by the police. But between them, the social distancing measures required to fight the pandemic and introduction of the national security legislation have squeezed out the mass demonstrations with their violent fringe, and the situation is now generally calm, at least on the surface.
Lam conducted an outreach session at the Queen Elizabeth stadium last summer with a few hundred members of the public selected at random. These were not radicals, they were ordinary members of the public and one by one they politely stood up and asked for an inquiry. Their plea fell on deaf ears, and no further consultation sessions were held. Inaction last year may have been understandable then. It is inexcusable now.
Lam must also take up the cudgels on the need for our own national security legislation. The Central government has imposed its own version but that does not relieve us of the constitutional obligation to enact our own. Right now we are stuck in a legal twilight zone. On the one hand we have the mixture of common law plus archaic UK legislation, on the other we have the new NPC approved national security legislation which answers some questions but raises many others. We should be nailing this one with our own set of laws to fulfill the Article 23 requirement, but containing all the safeguards that the common law system requires. Since maintenance of that system is itself specified in the national legislation, then this should not be a mission impossible.
Finally among the major issues is establishing a sensible code for dealing with extradition/rendition requests. We have some existing legislation and we have a number of specific agreements with individual countries, several now alas suspended. Hong Kong should not allow itself to become a safe haven for criminals from other jurisdictions, so we must have a modern and effective way of responding to legitimate requests, but incorporating necessary safeguards about justice at the other end. This is a tricky area. One reason several countries have put their agreements with us in abeyance is the fear that someone could be passed from Hong Kong on to the mainland. We must somehow arrive at a situation whereby persons extradited to us for trial cannot be passed on to other jurisdictions without the consent of the extraditing party. Securing Central government agreement to this will not be easy, but failure to try just leaves us in another twilight zone.
This is an ambitious agenda. But it addresses many of the key issues that have to be tackled and treats Hong Kong people as adults. They are hungry for real government, and know that feel-good bromides only create the illusion of problem-solving.