The impossible tasks facing Carrie Lam
Chief executive-elect is facing calls to restart the political reform package on one side and to enact Article 23 on the other; doing either – or both – is suicide
You can’t find two more moderate, reasonable and intelligent politicians than Ronny Tong Ka-wah and Jasper Tsang Yok-sing from opposite sides of the political divide.
The former Civic Party lawmaker wants chief executive-elect Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to relaunch political reform to achieve full democracy. The ex-president of the Legislative Council thinks she needs to legislate Article 23 of the Basic Law against treason, sedition, subversion and secession.
The logic of their arguments is unassailable. What’s more, they don’t just speak for themselves, but powerful and opposing forces in our society today. If we give up on political reform, Tong argues, societal divisions will only worsen. Tsang makes an analogous point: if we continue to postpone legislating on Article 23, the central government will run out of patience and be tempted to intervene unilaterally to extend national security laws to cover Hong Kong.
Of course, once we have an acceptable system of universal suffrage, the bitter destructiveness of the pan-democratic and localist camps should dissipate, and a more rational and mature opposition should emerge.
Likewise, successful legislation under Article 23 would give Hong Kong more breathing space as Beijing would no longer need to keep us on such a short leash.
The trouble is that no one knows how to achieve either. Former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa failed spectacularly in 2003 to enact Article 23. Under her boss Leung Chun-ying, Lam failed as chief secretary to push through the government’s election reform package in Legco in 2015.
Any attempt to revive either initiative is bound to provoke massive social and political disturbance and bitter fights. To try to do both would consume all the energy and attention of Lam’s upcoming administration to the exclusion of everything else – it would be, in a word, suicidal. We can forget about reforms and improvements to health care, education, housing and social welfare.
The tragic paradox is that to try to resolve our societal rifts and divisions, we will have to first exacerbate them. In doing so, we may push ourselves over the edge.
It is therefore rational, rather than irresponsible, to kick the can down the road by putting both Article 23 and political reform on the back burner. Lam said as much during her election campaign. But maybe she will prove to be a braver – or foolhardy – soul than we think. Either way, I’d hate to be in her shoes.