Carrie Lam between a rock and hard place

In the ramped-up battle to enact a national security law while meeting popular calls for greater democracy, Hong Kong’s leader is on a hiding to nothing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 1:21am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 1:21am

One side appeals to patriotism, while the other claims the moral high ground. But in the end, everyone cherry-picks the sections of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, to suit their political agendas.

So Beijing loyalists want to enact Article 23, which requires legislation against treason, subversion, secession and the theft of state secrets. The opposition demands universal suffrage under those sections of the Basic Law that promise it.

According to Lau Ping-cheung, a long-time government adviser and member of the Basic Law Promotion Steering Committee, the central government would be more willing to allow Hong Kong full democracy if the city enacted a national security law.

'Pass national security law and Beijing will be more confident granting Hong Kong democracy'

His remarks came after a high-profile speech given by Li Fei, in which the chairman of the Basic Law Committee blamed the absence of national security legislation for the rise of the independence movement.

For the opposition, it was the other way around. If Beijing had allowed Hong Kong to have “real democracy”, whatever that is, local people would be less resistant to legislating Article 23.

It’s a chicken-or-egg conundrum. Given the situation today, we have two intractable problems. The opposition would consider fighting Article 23 as the mother of all battles against the government. Beijing would not yield an inch on the restrictive framework on local elections set out by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on August 31, 2014.

Government ‘should appoint legal experts to map out controversial national security law in Hong Kong’

Trapped in the middle, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has offered the same lame answer to both questions: wait until the political climate is suitable. It’s not clear, though, how long she can stall. Even her former partner-in-crime Raymond Tam Chi-yuen – the former constitutional affairs minister who helped her and Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung push for the failed electoral reform package – has joined the Article 23 chorus.

Beijing is clearly putting on the pressure. But Article 23 is a poisoned chalice. It would not end well for Lam if she starts pushing for it now. The best outcome is to wait until her second term, if she makes it that far, before trying to reach some kind of a grand bargain over national security and electoral reform.

But Beijing has little patience for that. It would likely shove Article 23 down the throat of the opposition, even if it risks a political conflagration that would make the Occupy protests look like child’s play.