Quick fix aims to keep those foreigners out

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 September, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 September, 1997, 12:00am

That provision in the Basic Law about the number of foreigners permitted in Legco seems to have a most disturbing effect on local constitution-framers. Normally sane and sensible people go completely silly.

I do not know who came up with the idea that 12 seats should be designated as open to people with foreign passports or right of abode, but he or she should have known that this would be regarded as a crude way of helping some candidates while hampering others.

At least it had the merit of solving the technical problem presented by the numerical limit. After all, the fact that 12 functional constituencies may elect foreigners does not oblige them to do so. It is quite likely that at least half of these constituencies will elect people who are not in the forbidden categories.

That is not, apparently, good enough for the Constitutional Affairs people, who have now come up with a further proposal, apparently intended to deal with the outlandish possibility that the legally-elected Legco will subsequently breach the limit because large number of councillors will change their status.

The Government is going to propose an amendment to the election bill - already a sordid document - which will disqualify instantly any councillor whose nationality or abode status changes after the election.

Oddly, this is supposed to happen whichever way the change goes. A councillor will be unseated if he becomes a citizen of the United States, but he will also be fired if, being a US citizen elected for one of the seats in which such candidates are permitted, he renounces his connection with Uncle Sam and becomes a Chinese citizen.

Some councillors have already said they find this rather surprising, and so do I.

Hong Kong is now part of China. It is preposterous to say that people can be dismissed from Legco if they become fully paid-up citizens of the country.

Is there anywhere else in the world where people who become citizens of the country concerned are booted off the legislature for doing so? One possibility, of course, is that this is all a devious plot. Officials know perfectly well that the part of the proposal which will unseat people for becoming Chinese will be deleted. This will then leave us with a provision which unseats people who become foreigners, the real intention in the first place.

Another possibility is that officials really believe in the argument put forward for their plan, which is that the change would protect voters' rights: 'Their consideration when casting votes would include vital information provided by candidates.' There are two problems with this. The first one is that most of us probably do not regard whether a candidate has a foreign passport or right of abode as a piece of 'vital information.' Interesting and relevant, certainly, but not vital.

The second problem is that it requires the Government, if it is to be consistent, to consider other respects in which an elected councillor might change in ways which would leave his electors pining for a by-election.

Most of us, for example, would regard the sex of the candidate as a pretty basic piece of information on which we expected to be informed accurately. But the electoral law is to contain no provision for candidates to be unseated if they change their sex, or for that matter if they are elected in drag and reveal the deception later.

A more likely possibility, perhaps, is that the councillor will change his political allegiance. I notice that while candidates in the territorial constituencies are to be elected by lists, we have not been told of any arrangements to deal with the case of a candidate who, after his election, falls out with the organisation whose list he was on.

Legislators in other jurisdictions have exhibited a variety of behaviours which could be considered worth a second look from a surprised electorate: they have been convicted of fraud, accepted bribes for asking questions, set up households with a lesbian lover, publicly patronised houses of ill repute, been sued for paternity by disgruntled secretaries or charged with sexual harassment by same, faked their own deaths by drowning, consorted with gangsters, been accused of molesting small boys, torturing dogs, accepting favours from foreign governments, copying other people's speeches, drug dealing or giving grossly misleading statements of their interests.

All these mere peccadilloes will, apparently, have no adverse consequences on the status of a legislator in Hong Kong, as long as he does not seek to change the passport.

It is going to be difficult to convince the world that we are holding free and fair elections when it appears that the only items of election law which interest our Government are those which can be used to fix the result.