Drawing Legs on a Snake

The Cantonese language is replete with colourful phrases that capture the spirit of what the writer or speaker means to convey in a very vivid way.

Someone speaking the obvious is told that his mother is a woman. Someone being over elaborate, going into excessive detail or adding unnecessary features so as to spoil what has been done, is said to be drawing legs on a snake.

The origin of this latter phrase is a story from the Warring States period of Chinese history. A group of servants were competing for a bottle of wine by drawing a snake. The first to finish saw the others were still drawing so he decided to add legs, thereby losing the contest and the prize because no snake has legs.

I was reminded of these sayings when examining reports of remarks by the chairman of the Law Committee of the National People’s Congress Qiao Xiao Yang. Qiao is quoted as saying that future Chief Executives elected under universal suffrage must love China, love Hong Kong and not seek to confront the central government.

There is nothing new here. Deng Xiaoping said pretty much the identical thing 20 years ago and no one has ever to my knowledge challenged it.

These criteria are all so obvious that one struggles to think of what circumstance Qiao was trying to warn against. Did he think someone who hated China, or Hong Kong, and who wanted to confront Beijing would seek the office? Did he think Hong Kong people, who have consistently shown themselves as being among the most sensible and pragmatic political creatures on earth, would elect such a person?

Moreover, the Basic Law provides that the Chief Executive after election by Hong Kong people is to be appointed by the Central People’s Government. So if the worst came to the worst and a majority of the electorate decided that what our city of seven million most needed was a leader who hated his own country and region and would lead the fight against the leaders of a nation of 1.3 billion, then the CPG could simply refuse to appoint him.

That would of course create a constitutional crisis, but in the circumstances it would be no more than Hong Kong deserved. And it would give an opportunity for everyone to pause and think things through.

As if these remarks were not enough of a puzzle, Qiao went further and said that consultation on the election reforms should not even begin until most Hong Kong people agreed that those who did not meet his criteria should not rule the city.

This is an absolute cracker because the vast majority of Hong Kong people already accept these conditions. By setting this as a new up front condition Qiao implies that he believes otherwise which shows him to be completely out of step with public sentiment here.

Which brings us to the nub of the problem. Assuming as I think we must that Qiao was speaking sincerely and on the basis of what he took to be an accurate assessment, the question that must be asked is: Who is feeding back to the central leadership such false information as could lead a senior figure to make such remarks in all seriousness.

It cannot be the present administration. The Chief Executive, his ministers, and the Members of his Executive Council all know better.

Despite the recent change of leadership in the Liaison Office, there are surely enough old hands still around there and in the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office in the capital to know that this is nonsense.

Could it be coming from powerful individuals here disaffected with the present administration and with the ear of Beijing? One can only speculate.

We are left with the intriguing question of how the population at large could ever prove – given that it is deemed not to have done so already – that it agrees its future leaders should have the quoted set of pretty obvious qualities.

Let me offer a suggestion: we live in a People’s Republic, why don’t we just trust the people. In the extremely unlikely event that the collective will is a blatant error, the ultimate sanction of non-appointment is still available.

Meanwhile Mr Qiao, rest assured. Snakes have no legs and – you can take it from me -- your mother is a woman.