28 October 2016
Pan-democrats say they were told by EAC chairman Barnabas Fung that the loyalty declaration is not binding. Photo: HKEJ
Pan-democrats say they were told by EAC chairman Barnabas Fung that the loyalty declaration is not binding. Photo: HKEJ

Did we just create a political censor and henchman?

What we have here is a failure to cogitate.

How much thinking, we wonder, went into the decision to require candidates in the upcoming Legislative Council elections to sign a declaration of loyalty to the Basic Law and pledge their allegiance to the Hong Kong government?

It was so poorly thought out the Electoral Affairs Commission (EAC) was forced to come out and explain the requirement amid a firestorm of criticism.

On Tuesday, chairman Barnabas Fung told a group of legislators that the declaration is not binding and that it will not affect the candidates’ eligibility if they refuse to sign it, according to two lawmakers who were present at the meeting.

Leung Kwok-hung of the League of Social Democrats and Ray Chan of People’s Power quoted Fung as saying the requirement was in response to some candidates who advocate a break with the Basic Law and “one country, two systems”.

In short, it was there to sift undesirable candidates from those that are acceptable to the establishment.  

Fung quickly disavowed the remarks attributed to him by the lawmakers.

And he doubled down by saying the declaration requirement has legal basis and precedent in past Legco elections.

Fung said all candidates must complete the forms and file them with the commission accordingly. 

We are reminded of a standout scene in the 1967 prison drama Cool Hand Luke in which Paul Newman’s character is sent hurtling down a hillside with a whack from a rifle butt by the warden after telling him he should not go easy on him.

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” the warden announces to the rest of the inmates. “Some men you just can’t reach.”

Miscommunication is par for the course in politics. It’s the stuff of the artful dodge.

It’s also deeply suspicious.

If this loyalty test is starting to look like an attempt at gamesmanship, it might well be. It could define the Sept. 4 elections even before the first ballot has been cast.

The media was not invited to the meeting, so we are hearing different versions of it from Fung on one hand and Leung and Chan on the other. 

While the public weighs up his word against theirs, we’re left to wonder whether we are dealing with a newfangled political censor and henchman for the pro-establishment camp

The EAC is an independent civic body, not a political entity, so it has no business getting into partisan politics.

Not to be outdone, a pro-government newspaper tried its best to settle the issue by outlining how a candidate could be disqualified for not signing the declaration — and how he might be spared.

Make no speeches promoting Hong Kong independence and you’ll be fine, it said. And don’t forget to sign the pledge of allegiance.

Even then, there is a problem regarding verification. Does the EAC have enough resources to investigate each one of the candidates’ utterances?

Who will enforce compliance? And what behavior meets the standard of loyalty?

No one knows, but we know that localists and indigenous parties will have a hard time getting the nod.

The EAC might allow traditional democrats, including vulnerable incumbents, to be nominated.

But it would be strange if the likes of Edward Leung and Nathan Law, who are seen among those with the strongest potential, did not make it simply because of their anti-establishment views.     

The irony is that this naked political screening might work and become a fixture of our elections in an even more sinister form.

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EJ Insight writer

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