24 March 2019
Chief Executive Carrie Lam has to deal with a flurry of controversies in a city where politics have become so toxic. Photo: HKEJ
Chief Executive Carrie Lam has to deal with a flurry of controversies in a city where politics have become so toxic. Photo: HKEJ

Hong Kong: a city addicted to political time bombs

If you could turn back the clock, would you do things differently? I’m sure most people would.

Executive Councilor Ronny Tong Ka-wah said on radio recently if we could turn back the clock, the government should reverse its decision to build the HK$84 billion express railway to Guangzhou. Allowing mainland officials to enforce mainland law in large parts of the railway’s West Kowloon terminus has turned into a political time bomb.

But that’s not the only time bomb. Hong Kong’s politics have become so toxic, especially after the Occupy Movement, that it seems people want to attach a burning fuse to every issue big or small. Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah got her first taste of this on the very day she became the new justice secretary. She must have choked on her breakfast when she saw front-page exposes of the illegal structures in her luxury home.

That wasn’t the only bomb to blow up in her face. Days later, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor admitted she had given Cheng permission to complete six private arbitration cases even though she had already become a top government official, embroiling the hapless new justice secretary in yet another controversy.

Just weeks earlier, another explosion rocked Hong Kong when a court jailed now-retired police superintendent Frankly Chu King-wai for baton-whipping a bystander during the Occupy protest, plunging police morale to a new low. This week saw the arrest of a 63-year-old woman for allegedly hurling insults at the foreign-born judge who jailed Chu.

Two days ago, a war of words erupted between Lam and British politician Paddy Ashdown who accused Beijing of hacking away at Hong Kong’s autonomy, freedoms, and rule of law. But the time bomb with the potential to cause the biggest bang is still waiting to explode. It involves the case of student leaders Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, and Alex Chow Yong-kang who were jailed by the Court of Appeal for storming government headquarters, which triggered the 2014 Occupy uprising.

On the morning that Lam launched her war of words against Ashdown, the three student leaders faced five Court of Final Appeal judges who will decide if they should return to jail to serve out their sentences or be set free. The judges deferred judgment to a later date and extended the bail of the trio. But whatever the judges eventually decide, their ruling is bound to spark a political firestorm.

If the top court overturns the Court of Appeal’s jail sentences against the three and sets them free, it will further demoralize the police, infuriate Beijing, and cement the view among conservative Hong Kong people that our judges are too lenient and tolerant towards young activists who break the law. Such a ruling would also galvanize young people into believing even breaking the law in the name of civil disobedience is acceptable.

But if the Court of Final Appeal upholds the lower court’s jail sentence, the trio, along with the opposition camp, will accuse the government and Beijing of political persecution. It will fuel Paddy Ashdown’s claim that Hong Kong’s rule of law and independent judiciary have eroded. Already the three have said justice will not be served if they are sent back to jail.

If Wong, Law, and Chow could turn back the clock, would they still have stormed the government headquarters? I don’t know but their words and actions since the Occupy protests have clearly indicated they believe such action is justified in the name of civil disobedience to press for greater democracy. Maybe they feel a few months in jail is not a bad price to pay to be labeled as heroic prisoners of conscience by the Western world.

Would Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah still accept the justice secretary job if she could turn back the clock? That’s an easier question. My gut feeling is she would tell the chief executive to go stuff it when offered the job. It baffles me why she accepted it in the first place. She had a lucrative job, a luxury home, and a low-key marriage with a high net worth engineer. She should have known a top-level job in today’s toxic politics would ensure a flashlight shining into every corner of her private life for the public to see.

Maybe Cheng felt it was her public duty to accede to the wishes of the chief executive. Or maybe Lam is a good persuader. Either way she is now neck-deep in a pile of poop and sinking fast. Only she herself can stop her own political demise. So far she has failed to do that even though two weeks have passed since the media exposed the illegal structures in her home.

Her brief statements to the media threw up more questions than answers. The chief executive’s brave efforts to defend her during question time in the Legislative Council drew hostility rather than sympathy from opposition legislators. Bar Association chairman Paul Lam Ting-kwok told me in a TV show this week Cheng’s integrity as justice secretary will be irreparably tarnished unless she immediately reveals all the facts about her illegal structures.

Cheng has now agreed to answer questions in Legco as demanded by both opposition and establishment legislators. She will be stepping into the proverbial lion’s den. Can she save her job by surviving the hostile questions opposition legislators will definitely throw at her? That depends on how willing she is to tell the whole truth and whether there are further skeletons in her cupboard.

The opposition camp’s radical legislators are baying for blood. They will want to squeeze every last drop out of this political scandal by demanding Cheng’s resignation. But they are politically short-sighted. Instead of causing another explosion by forcing Cheng out, why not hold on to the bomb and just let it tick? This way, opposition legislators can let Cheng hear the ticking every time they feel the justice secretary is acting against their political interests. It’s like the Sword of Damocles hanging over her head.

The fallout from the time bombs that are now exploding will eventually dissipate but that doesn’t mean we can rest easy. New political explosions will take their place. Hong Kong is now a place that survives on political explosions. We are addicted to them. Our craving for such explosions is a daily reminder that 20 years after reunification, many people still find it hard to adjust to the fact that Hong Kong is now a part of China.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.

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