16 January 2019
Protests against parallel-goods traders and mainland tourists have been a regular feature in Hong Kong in recent weeks. Photo: Reuters
Protests against parallel-goods traders and mainland tourists have been a regular feature in Hong Kong in recent weeks. Photo: Reuters

Why the mainland visitor issue must be given top priority

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying set out for Beijing early last week to meet up with central authorities.

Prior to his departure, Leung reiterated that one of the major issues he will be discussing with the central government was the complaints being voiced in Hong Kong about an influx of mainland visitors.

He asserted before the TV cameras that he was going to work with Beijing to tighten the Individual Visit Scheme. The comments prompted many people to believe that Leung will come back with some good news.

In reality, however, the chief executive Leung returned to Hong Kong without any substantial results.

What is more, he appeared to backpedal on his earlier promises. The administration must take into account the existing right to travel enjoyed by the citizens of Shenzhen, and the economic well-being of Hong Kong, when reviewing the Individual Visit Scheme and the multiple-entry permits, Leung said, implying that the government had no timetable for resolving these issues.

To the hundreds of thousands of New Territories residents whose neighborhoods had been plagued by rampant parallel trading activities and were swamped with mainland visitors for years, Leung’s remarks came as a bolt out of the blue.

People were not only highly disappointed, they were also dismayed at the lecture on the need to look after the interests of Shenzhen citizens.

The failure of Leung to resolve the problems brought about by the Individual Visit Scheme suggests that Beijing still hasn’t made up its mind on whether to tighten up the scheme.

Meanwhile, it also indicates that Leung doesn’t have much influence over the central authorities on this issue.

This comes even as the unhappiness among Hong Kong citizens over the soaring number of mainland visitors has reached a breaking point. Although the anti-parallel trade protests that broke out continuously in the past few weeks were spearheaded by a handful of radical activists, it must be noted that behind these actions was a strong public sentiment against the mainland visitor influx.

According to an opinion poll conducted by the Chinese University last month, 66 percent of the respondents supported tightening up the Individual Visit Scheme. Among them, 90 percent agreed that the government should do so promptly even if this might have a negative impact on tourism and the local retail sector.

To make matters worse, the failure to review the policy of the Individual Visit Scheme and the multiple-entry permits was not the only bad news brought by Leung after his visit to Beijing.

As far as the 2017 political reform is concerned, Leung also passed on to us the message of NPC chairman Zhang Dejiang that the Central Government will not make concessions over the “831 Resolution”, and that if the reform package under the framework of the resolution eventually fails to pass Legco, there will be no question of restarting the so-called 5-step process of political reform.

The reason why I associate the failure to review the Individual Visit Scheme with Beijing’s tough stance on political reform is because although the two issues sound irrelevant to each other, they both raise the same fundamental question: if a chief executive like Leung who came to power through a “small-circle election” cannot handle properly a key cross-border issue, why would it be any different in the future when a person assumes the top post through an election in which candidates are pre-determined by a “small-circle” nomination committee?

Will a CE who is elected through a general election in which a small-circle nomination committee screens out candidates that Beijing doesn’t like have more credibility and public support than any of his predecessors?

Moreover, another major hurdle for the administration to overcome in order to achieve effective governance is the partisan gridlock in the legislature, where the minority pan-democrats often go to great lengths to block government bills and funding requests.

Although Article 68 of the Basic Law stipulates that “the ultimate aim is the election of all the members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage”, the 831 Resolution did not address this fundamental issue, and introduced no change at all to the 2016 Legco election.

Given that, it is highly likely that the existing standoff between the executive branch and the legislative branch will continue to dominate our political landscape in the days ahead, and that our chief executive is likely to remain a lame duck, even if he is elected through universal suffrage.

Having said that, I believe the central authorities and the SAR government should stay focused on resolving the conflicts between Hong Kong citizens and mainland visitors rather than working on an election arrangement that is unlikely to break the current political deadlock.

That strategy is necessary in order to demonstrate that the existing “one county two systems” can at least achieve something in the public interest even in the absence of universal suffrage.

I think the majority of our citizens will prefer continued efforts to resolve the pressing issues, rather than endless squabbles that often come to nothing. A substantial initiative can help improve public confidence in Beijing and in the Leung administration.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 11. [Chinese version 中文版]

Translation by Alan Lee

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Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government

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