22 October 2018
Two walk-for-a-cause events: Oxfam's Trailwalker fundraising activity (left) and Cardinal Joseph Zen's Walk for Universal Suffrage. Photos: Oxfam Hong Kong, HKEJ
Two walk-for-a-cause events: Oxfam's Trailwalker fundraising activity (left) and Cardinal Joseph Zen's Walk for Universal Suffrage. Photos: Oxfam Hong Kong, HKEJ

Oxfam seen taking sides on universal suffrage by being neutral

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun’s week-long “Walk for Universal Suffrage” has raised public awareness on the importance of public nomination for candidates to the 2017 chief executive election, and contributed to the massive turnout for the Occupy Central referendum on poll reform.

But Oxfam Hong Kong, organizer of another walk-for-a-cause activity, the annual Trailwalker fundraising drive, has distanced itself from the event led by the 82-year-old cardinal. The nonprofit organization issued a statement on its website last Thursday clarifying that it was not involved in Zen’s June 13-20 walkathon. 

The statement, in Chinese, said the “walk for universal suffrage has no relations with the Oxfam Trailwalker fundraising activity”. 

It would not have raised any issue had it stopped there. But the statement continued: “Oxfam has long been maintaining a politically neutral position. The organization cooperates with different races, gender and religions, going beyond political landscapes and working with government departments, societies and parties in order to alleviate poverty and assist the government in improving the lives of the poor.”

Many observers thought that by issuing a statement declaring its political neutrality, it is already taking sides on the issue. 

In the first place, while the Chinese characters for “Walk for Universal Suffrage” and “Oxfam Trailwalker” are similar, the local media and the public were far from mixing up the two as Zen is a well-known public figure and he is well identified with his campaign.

Some political observers believe that Oxfam’s statement, published only in Chinese, was meant for central authorities in Beijing, who had earlier accused it of having a hidden political agenda.

The background of some of the council members of Oxfam Hong Kong could offer some clues into the possible reasons behind the release of the statement. For example, Bernard Chan, a banker and a potential candidate for chief executive in the 2017 election, is the vice chairman of the Oxfam Hong Kong council, while Elsie Leung, former justice secretary of Hong Kong and deputy director of the Basic Law Committee of the National People’s Congress, is a council member.

The Oxfam statement prompted some supporters to start an online petition to urge the organization to issue a public apology. Some commentators also said that taking a neutral stance at a time when Hong Kong people must stand up and be counted on the issue of political reform is no different from aligning itself with Beijing.

Tony Tsoi, a long-time Trailwalker supporter and also a key organizer of the Walk for Universal Suffrage, regrets that Oxfam issued the statement, saying the two activities were working toward the same end. He also believes the statement was issued in order to please the central government.

Oxfam director general Stephen Fisher said in a blog post Wednesday that the organisation was not pressured to issue the statement last Thursday, adding that the statement was to respond to public inquiries about the who the organiser was for the walk.

Fisher also said the organisation could have done better in handling the issue, and he is sad that the issue raised public concern.

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EJ Insight writer

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