Duty to protect lost amid the symbolism
Six months ago, I wrote in this column that supporters of legal recognition of same-sex relationships might get a bit of good news in early 2009: an amendment to the Domestic Violence Ordinance to cover such relationships.
I was on the Bills Committee at that time, and legislators felt the Basic Law and other laws required equal treatment for all. For technical reasons, the bill couldn't be changed then, so the government, although it has a firm policy against recognition of such partnerships, agreed to introduce an amendment - and it has.
But something has changed. We now have a weird situation where the government (which didn't want the amendment) is pushing for it, and the Legislative Council, which wanted it, is resisting.
One change is that some lawmakers have left the council and new ones have arrived following September's election. One new member is the Democratic Party's Nelson Wong Sing-chi, a Christian who opposes recognition of same-sex relationships on religious grounds. The Catholic Church's Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, a strong advocate of universal suffrage, has also spoken out against the amendment.
The pan-democracy camp, where support for recognition of same-sex relationships is strongest, but which also has many Catholics, has been divided. Mr Wong suggested last week that he would vote for the amendment if the phrasing of the bill's title was changed so it sounded like it was about households rather than families. Catholic figures have said they could live with this.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong's evangelical Christians have stepped up the pressure. They are quite influential in pro-establishment circles - including the government - and would probably turn some pro-government lawmakers against the amendment.
On the other side, human rights and gay activists are lobbying in favour of the amendment. They have also spoken out against changing the wording of the title, and I think this shows how much this controversy is about symbolism.
Whatever the wording, this amendment may help protect a few people from violence in the home - in which case I think most people would support it. But, for these two sides, it has become a conflict over just mentioning the existence of same-sex relationships in a piece of legislation.
In the US, people sometimes refer to culture wars - a conflict between liberals and conservatives about social issues. Along with abortion, same-sex marriage is one of the biggest controversies. But the wars cover many other issues, from gun control to the environment and sex education in schools.
Is such a conflict developing in Hong Kong? Some people and groups involved in the debate over the domestic violence amendment have taken part in past arguments about obscene articles. We have conservatives, especially among evangelicals, who have quite strict ideas about morality. And we have student, legal and liberal groups with equally strong views about human rights and individual liberties.
In the US, many voters identify with one side or the other. But what do the people of Hong Kong think? We have no shortage of opinion polls about how good a job various politicians are doing month by month, but I have not seen a reputable, up-to-date survey of social attitudes in Hong Kong.
Judging by the relatively small numbers active in this latest debate, it seems likely that a lot of Hong Kong people have no strong opinion. As I wrote six months ago, most Hong Kong people don't care much what happens behind other people's closed doors. It's not so much tolerance as a culture of not interfering in other people's affairs.
That, sadly, is why we have TV commercials asking people not to look the other way when they know domestic violence is taking place. And reducing such violence is what the amendment is really about.
Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council