Hong Kong government harms its own political reform push by abandoning its principle of neutrality

Gary Cheung says by openly aligning itself with pro-establishment figures, the government has compromised its neutrality

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 May, 2015, 12:35pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 May, 2015, 12:35pm

The protests targeting the government's publicity blitz to promote its blueprint for the 2017 chief executive election have dominated headlines of late. While eyeballs were drawn to the rowdy scenes during the community outreach, a more serious issue has gone largely unnoticed.

Top officials were accompanied by members of pro-establishment parties during the publicity campaign. On her visit to Lai Kok Estate in Sham Shui Po last Tuesday, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was flanked by members of the Federation of Trade Unions, including its community officer Chan Wing-yan. Chan is widely expected to challenge pan-democratic lawmaker Frederick Fung Kin-kee in district council elections in November.

Potential district council election candidates from the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong also stood shoulder to shoulder with security minister Lai Tung-kwok when they distributed leaflets promoting the proposal in Kwai Fong last week.

Standing next to those in the corridors of power, these hopefuls from the government-friendly camp were given an enviable opportunity to steal the media limelight just a few months ahead of the election.

The government is sparing no effort to "Make It Happen" as it peddles its controversial reform proposal. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying clearly meant what he said in March, when he called on Hongkongers to vote out the pan-democrats in upcoming elections if they were unhappy with the camp's filibustering in the legislature and last year's Occupy Central campaign.

Rewind to 2010 when then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and his political team launched a similar campaign to sell the package for the 2012 elections. Pro-establishment politicians were absent during the government's publicity blitz.

Undeniably, Tsang had distanced himself from those he deemed unfriendly to his ideas during his tenure, but his administration was always careful to avoid the perception that it favoured anyone, especially in the run-up to elections.

By so openly aligning itself with the pro-establishment camp, the Leung administration has crossed the line. While the partnership between the government and the pro-establishment camp is a given, the administration should at least seek to be seen to be "neutral" ahead of elections. Local election laws bar any chief executive from belonging to a political party, with the tacit understanding that he or she should maintain a neutral stance.

Instead of bridging the divide on electoral reform, the sight of top officials surrounded by pro-establishment figures will further fuel cynicism among those who remain undecided on the package. According to a survey conducted by three local universities late last month, 47 per cent of those polled supported the proposal, while 38 per cent opposed it. The rest were undecided.

Staying in the comfort zone dominated by their allies in the pro-establishment camp is not conducive to winning the hearts and minds of those in the middle, whose backing is vital in the government's battle for public support.

Gary Cheung is the Post's political editor