Setting the stage for another round of confrontation

April 30, 2020 06:00
Erick Tsang moved from director of immigration to head the constitutional and mainland affairs bureau。 Photo:RTHK

Hong Kong’s major cabinet reshuffle last week in anticipation of a post-pandemic economic restart underlines several political realities including, first and foremost, Beijing’s continuing support for Chief Executive Carrie Lam despite months of massive protests, which tapered off only when the coronavirus crisis intervened.

The city is clearly in trouble, with Fitch Ratings downgrading Hong Kong in April as an issuer of long-term foreign currency debt, the second such downgrade in less than a year. The Fitch move followed a downgrade by Moody’s, which cited Hong Kong’s inability to resolve issues highlighted by the 2019 protests.

In March, the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, which had ranked Hong Kong the world’s freest economy for 25 years, moved the city to second place, after Singapore.

On the political side, the major development in April was Beijing’s self-described supervisory role in Hong Kong, despite a supposed high degree of autonomy. Given China’s hardline stance, the Lam administration is highly unlikely to reach any accommodation with the opposition democrats, who have been pressing for full democracy in the election of the chief executive and the entire legislature.

Yet another reality is that the 2019 political protests, interrupted by the coronavirus outbreak, are set to resume as the threat from the outbreak subsides. In a sign of what lies ahead, protests were held last Friday and Sunday at malls in support of 15 well known pro-democracy figures arrested April 18.

The 15, including many highly respected figures and former lawmakers, were arrested “on suspicion of organizing or participating in unauthorized assemblies” last August and October. The charges did not allege use of violence.

Those arrests have drawn widespread condemnation, including from the New York City Bar Association, which pointed out that two of those arrested, senior barristers Martin Lee and Margaret Ng, were honored last September by the International Bar Association, which bestowed on them its Human Rights Award “in recognition for their lifelong defense of fundamental freedoms.”

It remains to be seen how effective street protests will be, given the likelihood that the coronavirus will continue to be seen for some time as a public health threat. It is unlikely that the protests will reach the massive proportions of 2019, when more than a million took part on several occasions.

A march planned for May 1 has been banned by the police. Other events are being planned after social distancing measures expire on May 7, including the annual June 4 demonstration in commemoration of the Tiananmen uprising of 1989 and the July 1 anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty.

Meanwhile, all eyes will be on the legislative elections scheduled for September, when all 70 seats in the Legislative Council will be up for grabs.

The pro-democracy forces are hoping to ride the momentum of last November’s district council elections and gain a majority of seats in the Legislative Council, something they had never achieved before.

Currently, pan-democratic lawmakers hold less than a third of the seats in the council, yet they have succeeded in largely paralyzing the body for the last six months through filibustering to prevent the election of a chairman of the crucial House Committee.

This has prevented passage of the national anthem bill introduced at Beijing’s behest in January 2019. The bill came after repeated booing by Hong Kong soccer fans whenever the anthem was played, leading the Chinese government to move to criminalize such behavior.

Where the government reshuffle is concerned, much interest has focused on Erick Tsang, who moved from director of immigration to head the constitutional and mainland affairs bureau, the first time the head of a disciplinary service has been appointed to such a post.

Tsang displays in his office a plate with a portrait of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, which some people believe may be a reflection of his political proclivities. As constitutional affairs chief, he will play a key role in electoral matters.

A day after his appointment, while meeting the media, he was asked whether he would crack down on pro-democracy candidates by disqualifying them. He responded, “So long as they uphold the Basic Law and support the SAR government, there’s absolutely no problem.”

The problem, however, is that supporting the government is not a requirement for a lawmaker.

When a transcript of Tsang’s remarks appeared later that day, there was a note asserting that instead of “supporting” the government, he meant to say “pledge allegiance to” the Special Administrative Region.

Was it a slip of the tongue or a Freudian slip? We’ll find out soon enough.

The stage for the next round of maneuvering and confrontation in Hong Kong is now set.

-- Contact us at [email protected]

Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.