“Loose lips sink ships” was a US propaganda slogan during World War II that warned troops and citizens alike to avoid careless talk that might be useful to the enemy.
“Watch what you say on WhatsApp” might be good advice in today’s social-media-intensive world to those who want to avoid surveillance by the government or, horrors, the media.
And so it came to pass that popular Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yuk-shing lost the halo of impartiality that some had been prepared to grant him on the basis of his performance in the chamber.
Hong Kong’s aggressive media, one of the last bastions of the city’s struggling partial democracy, kept digging after last week’s fiasco in Legco to figure out what had gone on behind the scenes of the bizarre walkout by the bulk of the pro-Beijing contingent.
That was when online transcripts of dialogue in a WhatsApp group of pro-establishment legislators began to appear on the screens of reporters.
Far from remaining above the fray in the historic vote on the government’s electoral reform package, Tsang, it seems, supplied advice to the Beijing loyalists on their strategy.
At one point he even referred to People Power lawmaker Albert Chan Wai-yip, a perennial thorn in their flesh, as “the thief”.
Now, Tsang did reject the request by Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung, vice-chairman of the pro-Beijing Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong, for a 15-minute delay in the proceedings to allow his colleague Lau Wong-fat to arrive and vote.
The Legco president said he would have granted the request if it had been made earlier, but his hands were tied because the voting process had already begun.
His ruling, which was instrumental in the chain of events that led to a Beijing-embarrassing 28-8 vote against the reform package, seemed to cement Tsang’s reputation for evenhandedness — although he is a longtime member of the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, of which he is a former chairman.
However, in WhatsApp excerpts published in the Oriental Daily, Tsang emerges as a coordinator for Legco’s Beijing loyalists, advising on the timing of their speeches in favor of the electoral proposal.
The hundreds of messages in the excerpts suggest that Tsang and Tam Yiu-chung, another former DAB chairman, mistakenly thought there might be a few pan-democrats who might eventually switch to voting in favor of the package.
Tsang, who anticipated that Chan would, true to form, attempt a filibuster, advised the Beijing loyalists on when to speak and when to hold their fire.
At 9:27 a.m., Tsang gently reminded the Beijing loyalists online that whoever wanted to speak should speak early but not use up all the time to which the pro-establishment camp was entitled, in case they should need it later.
Half an hour later, he messaged them that all the legislators from the opposition parties who might switch sides had spoken already.
So he advised the Beijing loyalists not to speak.
“Reserve your energy,” Tsang advised them.
He told Chan to speak instead. Chan did not try to filibuster.
After Tsang rejected Lam’s request, Lam and DAB veteran Ip Kwok-him led the walkout in a miscalculated attempt to deny Legco a quorum for the vote.
In the excerpts, Tsang’s final message to the members of the WhatsApp group, five minutes after the vote was counted, was: “What’s the trick?”
The reason Lam and others gave for the walkout was that they were “waiting for Fat Suk” (referring to Lau by his nickname “Uncle Fat”).
Ironically, the bungled walkout might never have happened if the speeches in Legco had continued for as long as expected, at least until Lau arrived, instead of being curtailed by Tsang’s tactics to counter a threat that never materialized.
In another twist, Tsang offered the pro-establishment legislators that morning the following advice: “Some kind-hearted people suggested that I tell you all to buy a phone screen protector that can block what appears on the screen from media cameras.”
As it turned out, Next Magazine did indeed have a camera positioned behind DAB lawmaker Elizabeth Quat Pui-fan and grabbed a photo of a WhatsApp exchange in which Tsang wrote “the thief has returned” to advise group members Albert Chan was resuming his Legco seat after having stepped out.
Tsang admitted he had referred to Chan as “the thief” but said Chan should be proud of the nickname.
“This was like you would scare kids by saying ‘Thief, thief!’ The description fits him well, because he looks big and evil,” Tsang said.
Chan said Tsang should be impartial and demanded an apology.
It looks like Tsang has a lot to explain – both publicly and at the dinner Beijing’s liaison office chief, Zhang Xiaoming, is hosting for the pro-establishment lawmakers late Thursday.
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