POLITICS – Interests of Conflict Weekly Digest #9

Interests of ConflictBelow is the latest digest from our political commentator ‘Tony Wong’. Hong Wrong publishes a selection of his musings each week, but you can sign up for his full, daily newsletter by emailing ‘subscribe’ to [email protected] It is “aimed at informed residents who are encouraged to further develop and rebut the arguments made here, and in the media, to create actual, honest and productive political dissent.”

Monday, 9th December: HKTV Logical Fallacy

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is either very very much convinced that the government was right in refusing a TV license to HKTV or enjoys simultaneously animating and beating the figurative cow on the ground… Usually at the end of every defence for injustice comes the argument ‘but others do that too’. Yesterday it was Ip’s turn in the SCMP to deliver this dull statement, even making it ‘Editor’s Pick’.

When arguing why the television market needs to be regulated while the internet and publishing industry don’t, Ip dares to say “issues of market access and anti-competitive practices has mandated tight regulation right from the start”. Does Ip make these tautologies on purpose?

Friday, 6th December: Carrie Lam on Democracy

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was being rightfully criticized yesterday from several sides. That is the curse of sticking your head out in an environment where politicians otherwise have an incentive to duck and cover, like Leung does. She seems to cheer for true democracy but fight for the status quo and the establishment. Her clarification that the government did not intent to restrict the consultation to election procedures unworthy of ‘universal suffrage’ is brave given that four of her seven ‘key issues relating to the method for selecting the CE’ assume the existence of a Nominating Committee.

Unless of course WE are the Nominating Committee, which would add an interesting twist to how we are supposed to interpret the Basic Law. How literal should we take it? Can we disregard the intentions of those who created it (uninterested British and overly interested Chinese officials) and define the things away?… In her defence Lam mentions that the United Nations do not clearly define what universal suffrage means and that they allow each jurisdiction to come up with their own mechanisms.

Some things however are very clear to the United Nations. Especially in the Hong Kong context the United Nations clarified in March of this year that universal suffrage not only includes everyone’s right to vote, but also everyone’s right to stand for election.

Thursday, 5th December: Universal Suffrage

The consultation period for the Basic Law reform has started, and as this is naturally a very sensitive topic we can be sure that every single word said by our officials counts. Not too surprisingly the comments by the Chief Executive and the Executive Council are short and almost dismissive, though have interesting nuances. ‘Consultation’ is kind of a sad word to describe the process, as it is used to characterize the non-obligatory call for outsiders to give their opinions. As argued here frequently, a constitutional paper would see the government as the outsiders, not the residents who it should protect. It is more so obligatory for the government to include the residents into the discussion, as it is their legitimacy that they are seeking. A constitution that is not ratified or otherwise approved by the people is just another law that the government passes to enrich itself and expand its powers. For this matter, we can maybe welcome Leung Chun-ying’s choice of words and short, distanced comments. He is quoted as ‘welcoming rational reform discussion’, but in the end clarifies that he is the one initiating reform, and that while the government is happy to listen to everybody, it will make the final decisions.

In one of his rare English announcements he says such redundancies as “we should work together”, “be accommodating”, “rational”, as if these principles would ever not apply… The Executive Council issued a similar statement, although they also prefer the term ‘consultation’ and then argue that it “is an important step towards achieving the goal of universal suffrage”. While that might also sound redundant at first, it sadly might be a step in the opposite direction or worse, a refurbishment of the status quo.

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on the other hand releases a 2200 word statement not just welcoming this period, but actively progressing the discussion and arguing for the reasons and aims of this constitutional reform. This might not get her elected in 2017, but it is the kind of productive discussion that we can work with and that Leung is so welcoming of but never takes part in himself.

Lam explains the purpose of the Basic Law from the standpoint that it is both a reflection of China’s policies for Hong Kong (whatever they might be) and “to maintain the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong”. Regardless that these should not be the aim of a constitution, as argued above Lam fails to explain that these goals might stand in conflict with each other. What happens then? Who does the Basic Law serve first?

Her ‘Five Step’ explanation of what the process is is informative, but can be summarized with ‘the CE is the NPCSC’s rubber stamp” even if Lam prefers the term ‘we all have our respective important roles to play’.

While Lam is very optimistic about the NPCSC’s decision to allow for universal suffrage do we buy their ‘letter of intent’? We know well that different kinds of implementation of democracies can have very different effects on the actual choices that voters have, and even small things can matter. Whether the candidates should be nominated by parties, or whether corporations should be allowed to make donations, whether we have a first-past-the-vote system or what prerequisites a candidate should have.

The consultation document in question for example is very restrictive already in what kind of democracy we will be getting. The government envisions a Nominating Committee and then asks the people how many seats this NC should have isn’t exactly participatory governence. It is even worse with the LegCo reforms, where the government seems to think they can get away with just adjusting the number of seats for geographical and functional constituencies a bit.

Where I absolutely agree with Lam is when she says ‘the future is in our hands’… We can very much expect the government to at least listen to what we have to say, and we can be sure that they themselves can be insecure about what they want to achieve with this. History is very often written by those who bother to show up, and we notoriously underestimate the impact that we can have on politicians and political processes by writing to our government and voicing our opinion.

One great and yet easy way to do this is the Design Democracy Project from the Centre of Comparative and Public Law at Hong Kong University. It allows you to answer a set of questions on what you think democracy should be like and to explain your opinion. All opinions are public and will be reviewed by the university… We can easily shape this process by stating and explaining our opinions, views and concerns. We are asked to participate and we should. If we do not participate now the government will get the moral upper hand and be able to push any constitutional change on us as they see fit. If we do participate however we will have an easy time to raise our voices if we are being ignored. As much as our constitution needs our consent in order to be legitimate it also needs our participation for it to be just.

Wednesday, 5th December: TVB’s Apple Daily Ban

TVB ‘veteran’ Robert Chua defends TVB’s decision to exclude Apple Daily reporters from the company’s press meetings following the call for boycott of TVB’s annual gala.

There very well is a way to argue that TVB’s is legitimized to do this, but Chua inexplicably uses the argument that TVB’s decision does not restrict freedom of the press as it is the only choice that the broadcaster had to defend itself.

But defend itself against what? Excluding Apple Daily’s reporters certainly did not stop Apple Daily from boycotting the channel, and it also did not make Apple Daily’s boycott less effective. It made TVB appear like a bully who sends out invites to everyone in class who does not oppose their rule. Not exactly the kind of narrative that wins Hong Kong’s young over.

Even more surprising are Chua’s views on governance (or not, if you follow Chua more closely) in the Singapore – Hong Kong context. It is not rare to come across people who are favorable of strong dictators, who despise freedom of speech and love their government unconditionally, but they should bring on more arguments than Chua does.

“People should respect a government’s decisions, as they would their parents’ decisions, and not just challenge and oppose things for the sake of it. Just like any parent, even though they may sometimes be wrong, officials acted with the best intentions. Not all decisions are correct but, just as in business, ultimately someone has to step up. We need to trust our government to make a decision without resorting to daily protests, or to orchestrating public opinion.”

These statements do not at all explain what makes Singapore so successful, or what distinguishes it from the governments of Syria or Somalia. Should the citizens of these countries also trust their government with making good decisions? Why not? When can we trust a government, and when can we not? When do we know if a government has made a mistake, or when it is acting from malice?

By crediting Leung Chun-ying with handling the property cooling measures and the milk powder shortages well Chua shows that he either does not read the news or it shows that it is really difficult to find a Leung success story… “There is a price for everything, including freedom of expression. Can we really afford to pay it?”… What exactly would the price of freedom of expression be? It is much more easy to explain the price of lack of freedom of expression.

If we were not able to speak out, issues would remain ignored, officials had little incentive to do the best job they can deliver, the weak would not get heard and the strong always get their way. We would not be able to educate ourselves and have to rely on the government to tell us what is right and wrong. Those in power would have an easy time to form new generations in a way that makes it impossible for them to challenge the rich, famous and powerful.

We cannot afford to lose freedom of expression.

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