Leung's pregnant pause
Chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying's unexpected remark on Monday that there would be a quota of zero for pregnant mainland women who did not have Hong Kong husbands to give birth in the city's private hospitals in 2013 was surprising for several reasons. Not only will such a ban lead to legal disputes, but his statement was glaringly at odds with his earlier promise not to comment on policy matters until he is actually sworn into office.
What triggered Leung's sudden announcement? Several local media outlets had reported that by the end of April, the government was to announce an overall quota of 20,000 to 25,000 babies to be born in private hospitals for 2013. This apparently alarmed Leung, who early in the election had promised a zero-quota plan.
Why was the 2013 quota leaked to the media while the future chief executive seemed to be kept in the dark? One may argue that the negotiations between private hospitals and the Food and Health Bureau have been going on for months and the decision is still the job of the present government. But the negotiations are over a future quota, and, as Leung said yesterday, 'I must be responsible for the future administration'.
The more pressing and profound issue is how Leung is to deprive this group of babies of the right of abode. Leung declined to reveal any details of his proposed administrative measures yesterday but he promised, 'I'll definitely do something when in office [after July 1]'.
He could amend the immigration ordinance. Then, if a court case arose, he could hope that the Court of Final Appeal would override its 2001 verdict, which is regarded as the cause for the influx of mainland babies. Seeking an interpretation of the Basic Law is not on his mind at this stage.
Several days ago, Leung's office received a guest - former security secretary, now lawmaker, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who well knows the administrative procedures on the security and immigration fronts.
Leung's comments seemed well received by the public and political parties yesterday. Even the pan-democratic camp accepted his idea. The Civic Party's Alan Leong Kah-kit went further, urging the government to immediately stop allowing private hospitals to accept pregnant mainland women. The Democratic Party's Lee Wing-tat agreed that the zero-quota policy was feasible, but pointed out that the right-of-abode issue would be a bigger challenge to the future government.
Leung probably anticipated a positive response. He strongly believes public opinion is on his side. And now even some critical academics are wondering whether Leung is turning the Tsang government into a 'lame duck' administration.
Another reason for Leung's quick response was that he would need time to consider amending Hong Kong's immigration laws if he does not opt to seek an interpretation of the Basic Law from the National People's Congress. The current Legislative Council's term ends in July and the new council elected in early September will not begins its term until later that month. Leung and his future cabinet can prepare necessary drafts of bills during the summer break to be submitted to the new council.
But the urgent lesson here is that the current government and the office or the chief executive-elect should work more closely on all transitional policies, and the mainland baby-quota issue is only one of them.
During Tsang's last duty visit to Beijing in December, Premier Wen Jiabao urged him to secure a smooth transition for the future government, which Tsang promised to do. And yet the only time Tsang and Leung have sat down together was for one hour the day after the election.
Tsang's first job on returning from his 11-day visit to New Zealand, Brazil and Chile may be to sit down with Leung again and seriously talk about transition arrangements. The issues include the restructuring of policy bureaus, such as the setting up of new IT and culture bureau, which Leung has suggested.
As the Chinese proverb goes, 'You invite the guests, I pay the bill'. It means that one often needs to clear up the mess left by someone else.
Obviously Hong Kong's next leader is determined not to pay the expensive bills for the unwanted 'baby guests' invited by this current government.