Posted: Feb. 6, 2013
If Hong Kong’s embattled Chief Executive has achieved little else during his first half-year in office, he has at least done one thing that everyone thought was impossible. Leung Chun-ying is a target so tempting that all the feuding pro-democracy parties have (for now) put aside their differences and joined in unison against him. All 27 members of the pan-democratic bloc in the Legislative Council backed the motion to impeach him on January 9, and all 27 voted accordingly even though they knew their gesture was only symbolic (Jan 9 post).
Their determination held through February 1, when they also defeated the courtesy “motion-of-thanks” that traditionally follows the Chief Executive’s annual policy address (Jan. 24 post). They had vowed to do this immediately after he gave it on January 16, and not only did no one waiver or absent themselves when the division bell sounded for the vote but they even picked up another one in the process. Contributing to their success was the “two-house” design of the Legislative Council itself, which on rare occasions can actually work to their advantage.
The design was mandated by Beijing via post-colonial Hong Kong’s new Basic Law constitution, in order to keep pro-democracy legislators in the voting minority despite their popular majorities at the ballot box. For example, since the January 9 motion to impeach came from the floor rather than the government, voting was subject to the Legislative Council’s divisive two-house rule. Directly-elected Geographic Constituency legislators voted for the motion: 18 for, 14 against, all 18 being democrats. But the occupation-based Functional Constituency legislators were able to defeat it by voting: 9 for, 23 against. The great majority of these legislators are not democrats.
Since the motion-of-thanks also came from the floor, it too needed approval by majorities from both kinds of legislators, voting separately. So directly-elected pan-democrats were able to defeat the motion by using all their strength and voting: 16 for, 18 against. Functional Constituency legislators approved: 24 for, 10 against, but to no avail. The extra thumbs-down vote came from one of the pro-democracy camp’s FC marginals who had absented himself on January 9.
For once the system worked in pan-democrats’ favor, although maybe not for too much longer at least as far as the motion-of-thanks is concerned. The Chinese-language Hong Kong Economic Journal [ 信報 ] seems to have taken the greatest interest in this arcane ritual. According to the paper’s account, 2013 marks the 11th time the motion has been defeated since the Basic Law system was established in 1997.*
During pre-vote proceedings last week … that droned on for 30+ hours over three days while legislators debated the pros and cons of CY Leung’s policy address … one conservative Functional Constituency legislator recalled the custom’s colonial history. Before 1997, he said, the governor would give his annual address and legislators (all appointed by the governor) had to thank him for it, “as though he was our master and we his underlings.” Since that was obviously no longer the case, maybe it was time to think about putting aside this particular holdover from days gone by.**
DEBATING THE MOTION: FOR
Although no one actually said so, the impetus both for and against was grounded in Beijing. Pan-democrats fear the political future and CY Leung, as an uncritical promoter of Hong Kong-mainland integration, personifies the future they fear. In voting for the motion, pro-establishment legislators also closed ranks but their unity papered over interests far more diverse than those among faction-ridden pan-democrats. The February 1 vote in support of the Chief Executive should thus be seen as an exercise in political pragmatism with Beijing pointing the way; bedrock loyalist legislators holding firm; and Hong Kong conservatives falling into line … some more reluctantly than others.
The conservatives include CY Leung’s “fans,” as they are now being called, and those who supported his opponent Henry Tang in last year’s Chief Executive selection contest. Some in the “Tang camp” seem to dislike CY almost as much as do pan-democrats, albeit for different reasons. Bedrock loyalist legislators are those representing Hong Kong’s main pro-Beijing political party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) and the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU). Among the total 40 votes supporting the motion, legislators representing the DAB and FTU numbered 18. Included among the remaining 22 votes were those coming from the Liberal Party and other Tang campers.
Beijing officials set the tone with public statements of support for the Chief Executive and dismissing all rumors that CY would soon be removed. Just before the policy address ritual began, Hong Kong’s newly named delegates to the National People’s Congress (Dec. 27 post) were called to a meeting across the border in neighboring Shenzhen. At the meeting, Beijing officials lamented the reluctance of Hong Kong’s young people to identify with the motherland. The officials also advised that Leung and his rival Henry Tang, and their mutual supporters, should set aside their differences.***
This they did, at least for the February 1 vote, but not before many of them had their say during the marathon motion-of-thanks debate beforehand. Liberal Party legislator James Tien was an outspoken supporter of Henry Tang last year and did not go out of his way to heed Beijing’s advice, even though it was conveyed by his brother Michael who is also a legislator and concurrently an NPC delegate. Michael attended the Shenzhen meeting and spoke to reporters afterward. But during the policy address debate, brother James did not pledge allegiance to CY. Instead, James Tien advised CY to name others besides his own friends when making appointments to all the committees he is setting up to advise on all his promises. Among other things, Tien also said his vote for the motion was a courtesy not an endorsement.
Most widely quoted, however, was the sarcastic comment of another Tang supporter, Functional Constituency (Industrial) legislator, Lam Tai-fai. Last year, he said, we were given to understand that CY would be “like Moses” about to lead us out of the Red Sea and into the Promised Land. Instead, here we are, still floundering aimlessly “with only slogans and no objectives.”
The debate suggested just how difficult Leung’s life is going to be when even those who should be part of his natural support base have so many reservations. In fact, even some of those he knows he can count on (until Beijing officials themselves turn against him) could hardly contain themselves, although in the end they all did.
Most outspoken among pro-Beijing loyalists was Federation of Trade Union legislator Chan Yuen-han. During a Legislative Council question-and-answer session that followed the January 16 policy address, she delivered a fiery tirade over Leung’s apparent backsliding on the need for standard working hours. She said she wished she could behave like People Power radical Albert Chan because she wanted to storm out of the chamber in protest as he often does. Later she complained about not having enough time to consult her constituents about the address. Still later she said she had listened to their opinions and “some” felt it was pointing in the right direction on other livelihood issues. Finally, she said that unionists must be concerned about employment as well as wages and benefits … reflecting conservative arguments that standard working hours and overtime pay would hurt the bottom line and lead to layoffs.
There was general agreement, in principle, with the Chief Executive’s emphasis on housing and poverty. In this he has never wavered. But no one expressed much faith in his ability to have an impact on these two most intractable of Hong Kong’s livelihood issues … and especially not in the near to medium future as candidate Leung had promised last year. Some conservative legislators knew well whereof they spoke, of course, since they represent the “stakeholder’ interests that invariably block solutions each time some new one is proposed and are doing the same now.
In contrast, loyalist legislators all moved in the same direction as the FTU’s Chan Yuen-han, presumably taking their cue from Beijing. DAB legislator Ann Chiang said it would be best to consult and reach a consensus on standard working hours. That way the authorities could concentrate on boosting employment prospects and jobs for young people. Federation of Trade Unions legislator Wong Kwok-hing stuck with his demand for standard working hours longer than did Chan, but in the end he too supported the motion-of-thanks. DAB chairman Tam Yiu-chung praised the Chief Executive’s efforts to date: the revived poverty commission, the need to draw a poverty line, and a new allowance for needy seniors. He also chastised pan-democrats for demanding too much too soon.
DEBATING THE MOTION: AGAINST
Pan-democrats returned the favor, mocking DAB/FTU legislators for their time-honored tradition of conforming to the party line regardless of what they might have said before. Pan-democrats also held their ground throughout the exercise, which included several amendments expressing regret for the many policy address disappointments. The amendments, all of which were voted down, and the critical commentaries overall were wide ranging. The main issues: failure to begin moving on the next phase of political reform that is supposed to be in place by the coming 2016/17 election cycle; the familiar old official dilatory tactic of setting up new committees to study policy problems that have been studied for years; the retreat on standard working hours; failure to tackle proposals for a universal pension scheme; failure to consider demands for an anti-sexual discrimination law.
More important for the long-term direction they want to travel, however, were the speeches freshmen pro-democracy legislators gave in honor of their signature issues and in denunciation of CY Leung for his failure to address any of them. Functional Constituency (Education) legislator, Ip Kin-yuen, , newly elected last September, is the latest in a line of education sector democrats leading back to the late Szeto Wah. Ip began by noting Emily Lau’s question to the Chief Executive about why his policy address had ignored political reform. Leung had put her off with his standard reply: “We have time.” How much time does he need, asked Ip. He recalled his days as a student leader in the early 1980s when Hong Kong’s new democracy movement was just beginning. Students had organized a petition calling for universal suffrage and sent it to Beijing. They were all anti-colonial and looked forward to the day when Hong Kong could become a democratic part of China. Then, as elections to the Legislative Council began, he had idealized it as a forum for democratic debate. But now he had arrived there himself and he could see it was not what he had spent so many years looking forward to … “We’ve been at this for 30 years,” he said, “isn’t that time enough?”
Newly elected Functional Constituency (Accountancy) legislator Kenneth Leung said he was disappointed and angry with the policy address because it had contained nothing on constitutional development. If we had genuine democracy, he said, people would not need to keep going to the streets and the police would not need to keep strengthening their crowd control measures. The Civic Party’s Kwok Ka-ki, directly-elected last September, said “we have room and space” here and now to move toward universal suffrage elections. Hong Kong has judicial independence, clean government, and freedom of political expression. Yet we hear nothing from CY Leung on constitutional reform.
Another newly elected Civic Party legislator, Dennis Kwok (Functional Constituency, Legal), lamented the “few empty words” in the policy address on the rule of law, which also had nothing to say about the courts and human rights protection. Legal aid had suffered from neglect and underfunding since being moved to the Home Affairs Department (headed since 2007 by pro-Beijing stalwart Tsang Tak-sing, although Kowk did not name him). Hong Kong’s chief justice, Geoffrey Ma, had recently given a speech emphasizing the need for transparency and reasoning in the rule of law. This is why people are resisting the government’s recent recommendation to refer controversial cases to Beijing for interpretation. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, which issues the interpretations, is not transparent, said Kwok, and it does not explain the reasoning for its judgments. This is why we do not trust them, and this is also what we mean by democratic development. Without democratic development, we will not be able to safeguard the rule of law and our independent judiciary.
Nor were the freshmen alone in their determination. More remarkable has been the energy displayed by veteran moderate Frederick Fung. He, too, goes back to the 1980s when he founded one of Hong Kong’s first action groups, the Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood. He has spent most of the years since trying to find a place for himself on the line that divides pan-democrats from every0ne else. But he has remained adamant in his insistence that CY Leung lacks integrity, the proof being that he lied about the unauthorized renovations to his home, and is therefore not qualified to serve as Chief Executive. During his February 1 remarks, Fung again mentioned the integrity issue. He also commented on Leung’s “background,” concluding that he will not do anything to promote genuine universal suffrage elections since these cannot be tailor-made to produce only “certain kinds of people.”
Barrister Ronny Tong of the Civic Party is a stickler for legalistic definitions but on this occasion he combined them with the political dimension as well, in a way he could not bring himself to do when his party joined the “radical” 2010 referendum campaign. In his February 1 speech, Tong said the rules governing Hong Kong call for a check-and-balance relationship between the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive. The policy address had failed to address the relationship despite growing tensions between the two that other legislators also noted. Ronny Tong concluded that this lapse was due to CY Leung’s “confrontational” attitude toward the legislature, a fact that Leung himself has admitted (Jan. 24 post). When Tong asked him about it, Leung replied that they should all “work together.” Tong said this was flying in the face of the Basic Law. He also said that his effort to instruct Leung on its correct check-and-balance implications is continuing.
The motion-of-thanks ritual is just that … a non-binding formality that would not be missed if it disappeared from the legislative calendar altogether. CY Leung can ignore the results or not as he chooses, and he did not need three days of repetitive speeches to know what various sectors of the community think of him. But there is much to learn from this colonial holdover, first and foremost being the end of the old deferential relationship between master and minions, as one conservative legislator indelicately put it. In this respect, ironically, pre-1997 Hong Kong bears far greater resemblance to the People’s Congress arrangement, still prevailing in Beijing today, than post-colonial Hong Kong does to its new sovereign.
Consequently, Beijing officials probably have the most to learn since their intrusive pressures here, personified by CY Leung and his “background,” are being met with increasing resistance from all pan-democrats including both juniors and seniors. Wistful advisories about failure to identify with the motherland won’t carry much weight, and Beijing will need all of its persuasive powers just to keep conservatives in line. As for CY himself, he may want to step down even before Beijing renders a verdict on his performance since he obviously did not anticipate the challenges he would face when he confidently promised last year to be a governor for all Hong Kong. Instead, he has only succeeded in convincing his opponents and supporters to remain as they were. Yet he must somehow produce concrete results before his next policy address, which will no doubt also have to be delayed from the traditional October to January, since October is only nine months away.
* HKEJ, Jan. 28, Feb. 2/3. The Legislative Council Secretariat confirms that 2013 marks the 11th time the motion has been defeated, not the ninth as widely reported (e-mail, Feb. 5). The motion has carried five times since 1997, two of which were passed by Legco voting as a whole rather than via the two-house division.
** Check the Legislative Council website: http://www.legco.gov.hk/english/index.htm, for verbatim Legislative Council proceedings posted first in Chinese and eventually in English translation; also for links to the RTHK video webcast, from the floor, in Cantonese only. Otherwise, the visitor’s gallery is always open … even if the newly opened cavernous council chamber seems more like a cold dark hermetically-sealed bubble than a forum for the people’s representatives. Or as one attendant volunteered, “… it’s so high up that you can’t see anything from the visitor’s gallery … you’ll have to watch on the TV monitor.”
*** Apple, Wen Wei Po, South China Morning Post, all Jan. 15, 2013.