Vetting election candidates or a witch-hunt?

April 08, 2021 06:00
Photo: RTHK

Opposition politicians thinking of competing in December’s Legislative Council elections must study Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah’s warning last week. It seemed more a threat than a warning.

Cheng said a vetting committee to screen out so-called unpatriotic candidates will investigate all their past words and deeds. Now you know why I call it a threat. It is intended to scare off opposition candidates.

Did you join anti-government protests in the distant past? What slogans did you shout? You would likely be considered unpatriotic if pictures emerge showing you waving anti-communist placards.

What about your university days? Young people are, by nature, rebellious. Did you rebel against the government? What exactly did you say or do? Are there media reports of this?

Were you among the half a million Hongkongers who marched against Article 23 national security legislation in 2003? Did you shout slogans considered unpatriotic under the new Beijing-imposed national security law and election system overhaul?

Did you join any Victoria Park candlelight vigil to mark the anniversary of the June 4 1989 crackdown? What about the 2019 mass peaceful protests to oppose our so-called leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s now-dead extradition bill?

Did you make the “five demands, not one less” hand sign? That could be considered a violation of the national security law. Did you wear black clothes to join even peaceful marches when Lam refused to kill the bill?

Police nowadays often treat young people wearing black as possible suspects. They stopped, searched, and demanded to see the identity card of my part-time local helper’s teenage son a month ago.

The frightened youth, who happened to be wearing black that day, had forgotten his ID card. He offered his student card and called his mother who rushed to his aid. My helper, an old immigrant from Guangdong, is a total patriot. Her son is apolitical. The incident shocked them both.

Did you look happy and excited while taking pictures with politicians in the US? Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, a former member of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, said that would instantly disqualify you as a candidate.

Opposition candidates wanting to join elections must remember Hong Kong’s national security police will vet their entire history. The scary part is, aside from finding something that may disqualify you, they may also find something they consider a past crime.

Police findings will be passed to a vetting committee to safeguard national security headed by Lam to determine if you are a patriot. After that, another committee of top government officials headed by Lam will see if you are eligible to run.

If you fail for national security reasons you won’t be told why and you cannot challenge it in court. Vetting your entire history can be more acceptable if there is transparency in what the government is looking for. Just vetting to determine if you are a patriot is too loose a criterion.

To me, the whole process is more a witch-hunt than a vetting exercise. It is designed to ensure the opposition can never make a comeback. Directly-elected seats, the opposition’s stronghold, will be cut from 35 to 20. Legco will be expanded from 70 to 90 seats, with most filled by so-called trusted patriots.

Before candidates can even compete, they must get at least two nominations from each of the five sectors of the loyalist-heavy Election Committee, making it almost impossible for opposition candidates to run.

With all the cards stacked against them, pan-democrats need to consider if it is worth overcoming so many hurdles and have their entire history vetted just to form a tiny opposition with minimal influence.

It is, of course, their free choice. If they feel they have nothing to hide from their past history, they may try their luck even though it will be hard for them to win all 20 directly-elected seats. They might win half at most.

If they believe a tiny opposition of 10 out of 90 votes is better than no Legco opposition then they should go for it. But they must remember they need to prove their patriotism throughout their term or be disqualified.

What is a patriot anyway? Opposition politicians who have come to my TV show all say they are patriots who don’t promote independence or threaten China’s national security.
They just want democracy promised in the Basic Law, a free media, and their accustomed way of life. But they see all that slipping away as Beijing tightens its grip on Hong Kong.

After Beijing’s overhaul of the election system to virtually silence opposition voices, Justice Secretary Cheng even said she would consider ways to regulate blank votes. How?

Voting is secret in Hong Kong. Casting blank votes is a common and peaceful way to protest in free societies. Voters have the right to vote, not to vote, or cast blank votes.
Does Cheng want to change the rules about secret voting or make voting compulsory? If she, like her boss Lam, believes the overhauled election system is more democratic, Hongkongers will be eager to vote. Why then should she worry they will cast blank votes?

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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.