Move to sideline Hong Kong independence candidates is a misguided strategy
Gary Cheung says the rule requiring Legislative Council candidates to pledge their loyalty, by stating Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China, is overkill by anxious election officials
In an interview with me in March, Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office deputy director Feng Wei (馮巍) said he was prepared to accept the reality of young radicals winning Legislative Council seats in the September election. I was surprised by the pragmatism of one of the top Beijing officials in charge of Hong Kong affairs.
Four months later, Hong Kong’s election officials have introduced a measure requiring candidates to sign a form declaring the city an inalienable part of China, on top of the standard declaration to uphold the Basic Law. The move may help turn Feng’s prediction to reality.
A few weeks before the Legco by-election for New Territories East in February, the Registration and Electoral Office refused to mail the politically sensitive election leaflets submitted by localist candidate Edward Leung Tin-kei. The office justified its stance by saying that words in the leaflets like “self-determination”, “self-rule” and “autonomy” are “fundamentally in breach of the Basic Law”, which states that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China.
Ironically, the ban raised the public profile of Leung, an independence advocate. The University of Hong Kong student – a nobody before the Mong Kong riot on February 8 – stunned pundits and politicians alike by clinching 15.4 per cent of total valid votes cast in the by-election.
The new rule imposed by the election watchdog, which is on top of the standard declaration to uphold the Basic Law and pledge allegiance to the city, shows government officials have not learned the lesson from the refusal to mail Leung’s election material.
It is understandable that Hong Kong has to do something in response to Beijing’s displeasure with the rise of advocates of the city’s independence and separatism. Zhang Xiaoming (張曉明), director of the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, warned last week against allowing the Legco election to be used to promote independence.
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In reality, pursuit of Hong Kong independence is a mission impossible and a non-starter, given Hong Kong’s bond with mainland China. Nonetheless, it is dubious whether the new rule can stop candidates who advocate Hong Kong independence from running for Legco. Under Article 40 of the Legislative Council Ordinance, candidates should be allowed to run if they declare they will pledge to uphold the Basic Law and promise allegiance to the special administrative region. Signing the standard declaration form should suffice. There is no additional requirement, such as the confirmation form introduced by the election authorities.
No matter how unhappy Beijing and Hong Kong officials are, the situation will not change until the law is amended. If a person advocates independence after their candidacy is confirmed, they could be charged for making false statements, but that would be another matter.
Election officials have yet to explain the legal basis for the extra form and remain ambiguous on whether those who fail to sign it would be disqualified. They say the new rule aims at helping returning officers perform their duties in deciding the validity of candidacy.
Then the question of how to enforce the new rule comes: will returning officers, who are civil servants, need to count how many times a candidate publicly called for Hong Kong independence after they signed the standard declaration form? Will they dig out the candidates’ comments in favour of independence made before submitting the forms?
The fuss triggered by the government’s attempt to block those advocating independence and separatism is likely to give them another boost.
Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor