Will govt seek a middle path via an independent review panel?

December 09, 2019 18:32
With the protest movement showing no signs of flagging, the Hong Kong government is facing growing pressure to come up with some answers in response to the public’s demands. Photo: Bloomberg

Six months after the launch of the extradition bill-related protest movement, Hong Kong continues to grapple with large-scale street demonstrations and elevated public anger toward the establishment.

Although there have been mounting calls within society for an independent commission of inquiry (COI) into all the recent events, the government has continued to dig in its heels and is rejecting such demands.

Instead, all it is willing to do is to establish an independent review committee (IRC), which can look at the causes of the current social unrest, identify the underlying social, economic or political problems, and recommend measures that the administration should take, but which has no power to investigate or subpoena witnesses to testify before it.

As the proposed IRC is seen as no more than a “paper tiger”, it has fueled skepticism as to whether the government is truly sincere in trying to resolve the ongoing crisis.

Amid this situation, we now hear talk that the administration is taking a serious look at launching an IRC, and that it is deeply convinced that such move can help end the violence and chaos in society.

It is said that recently Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had personally asked Secretary for Labour and Welfare Law Chi-kwong to put together a core working team that will look for the right candidates to sit on the IRC, and that we can expect major progress in the short run.

The idea of setting up an IRC was first put forward by Lam herself back in September when she announced the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill.

Nevertheless, more than two months on, the administration is yet to make any solid announcement about the plan.

Meanwhile, there is chatter in the legal sector that the government did actually approach some retired judges to test the waters and inquire if they would be willing to head the IRC.

According to the analysis of a figure in the legal sector, the retired judges said 'no' as they didn't want to be at the helm of a “toothless tiger”. 

It is understood that since no retired judge is willing to take up the task, some have suggested that the government should invite an academic with social status to lead the IRC.

However, it is said that the administration is still insisting on appointing a judge to chair the committee, mainly because of the impartial public image of judges, which, the authorities hope, can make the findings of the review more acceptable among society.

It is also said that in order to step up efforts at finding a prominent legal figure to lead the IRC, the chief executive has recently required Betty Fung Ching Suk-yee, the current head of the Policy Innovation and Co-ordination Office, to join forces with Law to form a core team to work on it.

In the meantime, Henry Fan Hung-ling, the newly appointed chairman of the Hospital Authority (HA), has outlined another suggestion last week.

Last Thursday, Fan publicly called upon the government to set up an IRC under the existing Commissions of Inquiry Ordinance, so that the committee can be vested with statutory power to summon witnesses.

Fan stressed that the IRC he proposed wasn’t intended to hold anybody accountable, but rather, to get to the root of the problem, such as finding out whether or not something has gone wrong with the police deployment.

Apparently, what Fan was trying to do is here to steer a middle course between the uncompromising stance of the government and the demands of protesters. And his proposal might at least be able to offer us some light at the end of the tunnel.

Unfortunately, as we have just learned, Fan's suggestion hasn’t gained much favor with the government leadership.

The is largely because what he is proposing is seen by the administration as tantamount to having a "de facto COI" in the guise of an IRC, an idea that will deeply upset both the central authorities and the police.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 6

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.