In a surprising turnaround, the administration of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has indicated that it may stop pushing the cross-border high-speed rail link project and the copyright amendment bill, which are both facing filibustering in the Legislative Council.
The Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, Greg So, said on Thursday the government would withdraw the Copyright (Amendment) Bill if lawmakers fail to pass it by next week, noting that its decision is based on “consideration of the bigger picture”.
So said there are still more than 20 other bills relating to livelihood issues as well as the budget pending before Legco before the legislators’ term expires in July.
If Legco does not pass them, the legislative process would have to start all over again.
The government’s apparent retreat followed its denunciation of the filibusters put up by pan-democrat lawmakers in the past few months.
Almost all senior government officials as well as Beijing representatives have voiced their anger and dismay over the lawmakers’ efforts to block the two proposals.
Their criticisms, however, have failed to put pressure on the democrats.
Critics of the copyright bill, for example, have observed that the government appears to be more interested in protecting the interest of copyright owners than in upholding freedom of expression.
For many Hong Kong people, their right to express their views and sentiments through user-generated content on the internet should not be abridged.
The pan-democrats expressed regret over the government’s decision to drop the bill, saying that they have been trying their best to narrow the gap between the interests of the copyright owners and the internet activists.
In fact, the internet activists did not expect the government to withdraw the entire bill, and only sought sufficient protection for those who use copyrighted materials for private and non-profit use.
While So is blaming the pan-democrats’ “selfishness” for Legco’s failure to pass the bill, the activists insist that withdrawal will not help facilitate rational discussion and blame the government for the proposal’s demise.
The government is also apparently waving the white flag on its request for additional funding for the high-speed rail link, which requires the approval of the Legco finance committee.
Earlier this week, Undersecretary of Transport and Housing Yau Shing-Mu told a Legco meeting that the government will have to consider whether to temporarily halt the Guangzhou–Shenzhen–Hong Kong rail project if the new budget is not approved by the legislature within a week.
Legco has yet to approve the request for an additional HK$19.6 billion fund, without which the project will run out of money and the government will be forced to suspend it by next month.
In fact, the government has bypassed a Legco subcommittee in order to speed up the approval process.
But the controversy over the project is much greater than that generated by the copyright amendment bill.
The government, for example, has failed to assure the lawmakers that the so-called “co-location arrangement” for immigration checks at the West Kowloon terminus will not violate the Basic Law requirement that no Chinese officials will be allowed to implement Chinese laws in Hong Kong.
Critics have also aired suspicions that the rail network, ostensibly designed to facilitate cross-border travel, could be made to serve military purposes.
Neo-democrat district councillor Roy Tam recently uploaded a video on social media, pointing out that the location of a rail depot is only a few minutes’ walk from the People’s Liberation Army camp in Shek Kong.
He suspects that the rail link could be used to help facilitate the deployment of PLA troops to Hong Kong when needed. So far no word from the government on Tam’s suspicions.
Still, many Hong Kong people are opposed to the project because of its huge costs and doubtful benefits.
Some call it another white elephant in the making, whose cost will not be recovered in 40 to 50 years.
And so with the government’s turnaround on the copyright measure and the rail project, can the pan-democrats claim victory? Could it be said that CY Leung’s administration has finally listened to public opinion? Has it thrown in the towel to solve the deadlock in Hong Kong?
It may be that the government is simply choosing its battlefield. It knows that insisting on the copyright bill and the rail link will take up much of its time and energy, so it is better to focus its attention on the budget and other pending bills.
But it is most probable that the government is just playing another public relations game prior to the Legco by-election in New Territories East on Sunday.
Government officials and the pro-establishment media can cite the two cases as examples of how the democrats are blocking administration efforts to improve Hong Kong, and use that to attack the democrats and campaign for pro-Beijing candidate Holden Chow.
The electoral exercise on Sunday is a crucial one.
If Chow wins, the pro-Beijing camp will have sufficient number of lawmakers in the geographical constituencies.
That in turn will enable the administration to push amendments to the Legco rules and procedures, which, for example, could stop filibusters, one of the few effective methods in the hands of pan-democrats to make a difference in the legislature.
If that happens, the government no longer has to contend with any opposition at Legco, and will be able to turn the legislature into a real, dependable rubber stamp.
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