Offhand dismissal of criticism over Leung Chun-ying’s luggage saga will only fan Hong Kong people’s discontent

Stephanie Cheung says accountability is necessary in both the luggage affair involving the chief executive’s daughter and the mystery over bookseller Lee Po’s disappearance

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2016, 5:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2016, 5:31pm

Some say that Hong Kong has become too “noisy”. What with protests over the handling of a piece of luggage left outside the security area by the chief executive’s daughter and the disappearance of Lee Po over the border, are we taking ourselves too seriously?

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Pro-Communist commentators have tried to categorise these protests as making a mountain out of a molehill. After all, so the argument goes, even Lee himself has come out to explain that he illegally left Hong Kong with no travel papers without telling his family, because he wanted to take care of certain matters on the mainland. Now he’s back safely, Hong Kong should just shrug it off even though, in our heart of hearts, we remain unconvinced that he left voluntarily.

They claim that to dwell on this incessantly is just to play into the hands of the US, which is trying to subvert the moral legitimacy of China’s government. Hong Kong should not take itself overly seriously, it is said. Just let this insoluble mystery remain, and move on. By traditional Chinese thinking, this is a way of “giving face” and not pressing for an answer that would expose something that threatens to stink so much that it would create an even bigger uproar.

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But then, what if Lee was actually taken away by Chinese officers (directly or through agents). Would that not constitute a breach of the “one country, two systems” arrangement under the Sino-British agreement? If such a breach is not identified, and rectified, how can Hong Kong be assured that it would not happen again?

Many in Hong Kong are understandably perturbed about a possible knock on the door in the middle of the night.

As a lawyer, day in and day out in the commercial world I see Party A being accused of infringing some contractual or proprietary rights of Party B. When confronted, Party A may deny it, and fight to the bitter end out of a sense of self-righteousness or face.

Alternatively, it may take a sensible approach by saying something to the following effect: “While not admitting to any infringement, it is regrettable that some misunderstanding has arisen. Without going into details of the facts, you can be assured that every care will be taken not to breach Party B’s rights in the future.” Often, such an assurance is accompanied by an offer of recompense (which is not really relevant in this case).

Such an offer would allow Party B to shrug and say, “OK. Even though it’s not 100 per cent of the explanation we want, or assurance in the strongest terms, let’s take a pragmatic view, accept this and move on.”

In any relationship, be it commercial, personal or political, this is how healing and reconciliation happens. The matter can then be buried, and the parties are able to move on.

Of course, in a legal case, the lawyers on both sides will broker the deal, and come to some “without prejudice” understanding on a confidential basis that the offer and wording by Party A will be acceptable, and that Party B will drop the matter, before any statement is publicised. There is no reason why the same practice cannot be followed in a socio-political context.

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The special constitutional role of the chief executive under the Basic Law is to function as a bridge between Beijing and Hong Kong, and to represent Hong Kong’s concerns and interests to Beijing, while considering empathetically what difficulties Beijing may have in the matter so as to formulate a solution.

It is clear from the Lee Po incident that Hong Kong desperately needs an advocate, adviser and broker – a leader in every sense of the word – to hold the interests of Hong Kong at heart but, at the same time, be empathetic to Beijing, and pragmatic and flexible in reaching solutions.

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It is exactly in the context of Hong Kong’s gaping hunger for such qualities in a leader that the suitcase incident has hit a raw nerve. All international airports post notices saying that unaccompanied luggage may be taken away due to security risks.

With the heightened risk of terrorism in international travel today, Hong Kong’s airport personnel and travellers deserve protection, and this requires the strict implementation of security rules. To risk the safety of so many in order to cater to a convenience seems unduly disproportionate.

Even harder to stomach is when the government shirks its responsibility and denies any favouritism and abuse of position, and passes the responsibility to airlines and airport personnel. When considering the accountability of a public officer paid several millions of dollars a year, passing the buck to frontline airport staff paid a fraction of that, can we regard the protests as a big fuss over nothing?

In situations like these, it is tempting for Party A to say “So what? What can Party B do to me, even if I do not give any assurance? Let’s see who wins in the end; I have more than enough resources to dry out Party B.”

That would be a huge mistake.

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Hong Kong is already tasting the bitter fruit growing from the bad seed of mistaken bravado. The cases of bookseller Lee Po’s disappearance and Leung Chun-ying’s daughter’s misplaced suitcase are merely two incidents in a chain of events that have pitched the Hong Kong government, and often, the central government, against the people of Hong Kong.

Blow after blow – from differences in democratic reform to the Umbrella Movement and university appointments, just to recount a few – has assaulted the sensibilities and aspirations of Hong Kong citizens, without any gesture of healing made along the way.

The outcome is growing cynicism, distrust and hostility, instead of mutual understanding, acceptance and harmony. When no rational discussion or healing is offered, people are pushed to take more and more extreme positions and measures.

As society pays the high social and political cost for this polarisation, we are also beginning to pay for the consequential economic cost. Can we still afford to shrug it off?

Stephanie Cheung participated in the student movements in the 1970s, and is currently a solicitor and mediator, and volunteer in youth work and education