Future LegCo

Enactment of the National Security Law, and implementation of the extensive political reform package, have raised some fundamental questions about future representation in the Legislative Council and how it will function.

Much of the attention recently has been focused on the outcome of the Democratic Party’s general meeting late last month. In effect the party resolved not to make a decision on whether or not to field any candidates in the December polls. Rather it would be left to individual members to decide whether or not they wished to participate, then the central committee would meet to consider whether they could run in the party’s name.

It is easy to mock this lack of decisiveness: I did so in a recent column and characters as diverse as party co-founder Fred Li Wah-ming and chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor have both raised the question of why a political party existed if it was not to contest elections.

In a recent discussion of the subject on RTHK’s Backchat programme, former legislative councillor Christine Loh Kung-wai drew four main conclusions: the party was keeping its options open; we were reverting to the pre-1997 situation where individuals could do well; it was not necessary to be a political party to have influence (NGOs could too); the perspective of voters would be critical.

Whether an individual wishes to run, or a party wishes to field candidates, they will have to decide where they stand in the political spectrum and how to describe themselves. In the past we have all used two broad descriptions “pro-government” and “opposition”. These will not be good enough in the new era.

For one thing the pro-government cadre have been lambasted as “loyal trash” by Tin Feilong, a Beijing academic. That means they were not doing their job thoroughly enough to keep the government on the right track. Doing the job properly means making sure the SAR government is defining problems correctly, then bringing forward the solutions that best address them. That requires application of energy and intellect, full “engagement”, then making constructive suggestions to refine problem definition and improve remedies. Chanting patriotic slogans is no substitute for competent performance. Have the pro-government parties been fielding candidates of the right calibre?

A classic example was their failure in early 2019 to correct the government’s mistaken strategy over extradition which fed directly into the social unrest. There were actually two separate problems: one was the need to send a murder suspect back to Taiwan for trial. This was not at all controversial and could (and should) have been dealt with quickly under existing laws. The second problem was the need to review Hong Kong’s extradition/rendition arrangements 20 years after establishment of the SAR. This was potentially very controversial, and required a steady measured approach with ample time for public consultation to inspire confidence. Even the conservative Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce was urging caution. The government instead decided to conflate the two issues and rush through a comprehensive reform on extradition using the single Taiwan case as justification, with only 20 days allowed for consultation. “Pro government” members of Legco should have said “Send this guy back right away and let’s take our time with the major overhaul”. Instead they put aside any misgivings they may have felt and indicated they would vote it through on 12 June. Hence the enormous protest march the weekend before the LegCo meeting, and when that failed to secure a delay, the student blockade of the chamber on the 12th to prevent the session going ahead.

There is an effort now to ascribe all the blame for the subsequent protests to outsiders. It is true that anti-China forces did step in to ramp up pressure and interfere in Hong Kong affairs in a variety of nefarious ways. But they were not creating a problem, they were taking advantage of our own error. How much better it might have been if the patriots had done their job properly in the first place.

The traditional opposition parties did not acquit themselves any better. Opposition per se strays perilously close to trying to bring the government down, and the concept of “loyal opposition” is struggling for a foothold. Opposition for its own sake is not a useful pursuit. How beneficial was it for all and sundry to filibuster legislation on the national anthem for months on end? And what was the point of obstructing the house committee convening properly and setting a work agenda? Most serious was the reluctance of many leaders to condemn outright the violence and vandalism that ensued from mid-June 2019 onwards, apparently for fear of losing support from their younger followers. That is not leadership. So the pan democrats have some serious soul-searching of their own to do in the candidate-selection process too. Bearing in mind that anyone sticking their head above the parapet these days comes under close scrutiny, they may decide it is not worth the aggravation.

In my view there is still room for two streams of Legco members: those inclined to believe in defiance of all history that the government will get most things right – call them the optimists – and those who from experience believe most government proposals will need improvement – call them the pessimists (or realists). Whatever their instincts, all members will need to be totally engaged on their duties and able to offer constructive suggestions to perfect government policies.

My main concern looking ahead is that there will be too many optimists in the new Legco, allocated seats as a reward for past loyalty, and not enough pessimists. Given the understandable hesitancy of the Democrats, the central government may need to proactively headhunt some realists to get the balance right.