Fuel to the ire?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 June, 2008, 12:00am

Greg So Kam-leung, former vice-chairman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, a former professionally qualified lawyer in Canada and former Canadian passport holder, has just started his new job as undersecretary of the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau. He had hardly begun his work in the politically appointed post when he was dealt a tough hand.

Mr So was aware that holding onto his Canadian passport, while completely legal, would make the government and his party vulnerable to continued attacks from their political foes. Giving it up, on the other hand, would not only affect others in similar positions, but could have far-reaching ramifications in Hong Kong's developing constitutional set-up; the question of dual allegiance could be raised against many in the higher echelons of government, where dual citizenship must be very common.

In the end, Mr So chose to pacify a political storm, albeit possibly contributing to a constitutional one, by renouncing his Canadian citizenship and, along with it, his qualification to practise law in Canada. Many would call it 'succumbing to public pressure', especially when the media has focused this issue of theoretical dual allegiance on him more than any other undersecretary-designate. Some of the commentaries and criticism that flooded the Chinese-language media came close to a personal public lynching.

Mr So's more moderate critics are convinced that he should have thrown away his foreign passport a lot earlier. They seem quite upset that it took him more than a week to arrive at the door of the Canadian Consulate, and have attributed that to his lack of foresight.

These critics must bear in mind, however, that Mr So is a lawyer by profession and, naturally, what the law says is more important to him than what political correctness requires. Article 101 of the Basic Law says that the Hong Kong government may employ foreign nationals holding permanent Hong Kong identity cards 'to serve as public servants in government departments at all levels', except for certain top-level posts that must be filled by permanent residents who are Chinese citizens with no right of abode in any foreign country. These do not include any undersecretary post. If political wisdom had guided Mr So to think of renouncing his Canadian citizenship the moment he considered taking up the government post, political acumen would have also warned him against taking any action that might alienate him from his colleagues in government.

Neither Mr So nor the government can be blamed for failing to foresee the intensity of the attacks. Dual allegiance has never raised any serious concern among the Hong Kong public. It is not too uncommon for senior officials in other governments to hold foreign citizenship.

Arnold Schwarzeneggar's dual US-Austrian citizenship was not an issue when he became the governor of California. Ironically for Mr So, Canada is one country with a relatively high number of politicians who hold dual nationality. Among them is former prime minister John Turner, who in 1984 succeeded Pierre Trudeau. Mr Turner was born in England and still retains his British passport. The president of the Canadian Liberal Party and leader of the Opposition, Stephane Dion, is a dual French citizen.

Some who appear to be strongly against allowing dual citizenship for undersecretaries have suggested amending the Basic Law to forbid it. But why single out undersecretaries? How about judges in the High Court and the Court of Final Appeal, for example? When assuming office, they also have to swear allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Should the Basic Law be amended to require them to give up their foreign citizenship, as well? The decision to relinquish a citizenship cannot, and should not, be taken lightly.

To give Mr So credit, the added complexities of weighing the government's position on the legality of his Canadian citizenship against the intolerance of the press must have made his decision all the more difficult. It is a test of his political sense and sensitivity, as well as his commitment to his new post.

For as long as I have known him, Mr So has always been deeply thoughtful, and realistically optimistic, about the future of Hong Kong and the world. In a recent television programme, Mr So talked about his vision for Hong Kong politics that sees past party lines and serves the needs of the public; politicking that is less hateful and more tolerant of differing views; a political environment that thrives not from mockery but from mutual appreciation of others' preferences.

In today's political world of spin-mania, sound bites, mudslinging, press-ganging and a lot of self-serving lip service, Mr So's vision is a brave one to nurture.

Tsang Yok-sing is a directly elected legislator for Kowloon West and the founding chairman of the DAB