Cliff Buddle
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Cliff Buddle
My Take
by Cliff Buddle

‘Setback’ shows all is not lost and world needs to know

  • Cliff Buddle says there were traces of old Hong Kong as John Lee faced controversy and everyone seemed to have an opinion in a row over fake vaccine exemption certificates

Hong Kong’s leader promised a new chapter for the city when taking over the helm in July. A page, at least, has been turned. And the plot has now thickened.

The government has become embroiled in a storm over its move to invalidate vaccine exemption certificates. It is the biggest controversy to face Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu so far.

Lawmakers slammed the government. A court blocked the policy, declaring it to be unlawful. There has been robust public debate. The affair has even been described as weakening the authority of the administration. All we need is a (peaceful) protest and it will seem like the old Hong Kong!

Lee, no doubt, could have done without this row. It followed hot on the heels of his marathon policy address and is a distraction from the many pressing issues facing the government.

But the controversy can be seen in a positive light. It is a reminder of how Hong Kong used to be before the pandemic, the national security law, and the “patriots only” political system transformed the city.

Over the past three years, the room for public debate, especially views challenging the government, has narrowed. Opposition figures were arrested under the security law and like-minded groups disbanded. Some prominent media organisations closed. People became more wary of openly expressing their views. Meanwhile, dissenting voices in the legislature faded.

These events have had a negative impact on Hong Kong’s international image. The city is now often portrayed as being firmly in the grip of Beijing and little different to the mainland. There is a perception everyone from lawmakers, to journalists and judges is doing the government’s bidding and speaking with one voice.

But the vaccine certificate affair suggests Hong Kong still has an appetite for scrutinising government actions and holding it to account. Checks and balances remain. The “one country, two systems” concept is not what it used to be. It is, however, not dead yet.

The government should take note. The storm over vaccine exemption certificates appears, in part, to have arisen because of its complacency. The judge who ruled against the administration suggested it assumed it had the power to invalidate the documents, without making sure.

New legal bid against Hong Kong government’s move to void Covid jab exemptions

A pro-establishment lawmaker raised concerns, asking for officials to identify the legal power on which the decision was based and describing its move to invalidate certificates as “imperious”. It is good to see “patriotic” legislators holding the government to account. That’s their job.

Then, an independent court made its ruling that the invalidation policy was unlawful. It fulfilled its responsibility to ensure officials are acting within the law.

The government has responded by amending the law to provide itself with the missing power to invalidate fake certificates. This has been done to prevent holders of the suspicious documents evading the vaccine pass scheme.

That decision, too, has been criticised. Some argue the government should have appealed against the ruling in the hope a higher court would overturn it.

But the administration is entitled to amend the law. It respected the court decision rather than seeking to run its rather lame arguments all over again before other judges. The new law allows the problem of fake certificates to be dealt with quickly. But it must be applied fairly and is already the subject of a fresh legal challenge.

Hong Kong is nowhere near back to normal, as Covid-19 measures persist and the political changes become further entrenched. Almost every day, the courts are hearing cases brought under the national security law, public order legislation, or sedition. The long-awaited trial of opposition figures is still pending.

But this first “setback” of Lee’s term, with lawmakers, media, civil society and the courts all weighing in, shows all is not lost. It might be messy and inconvenient, but it is an integral part of Hong Kong’s separate system.

This is one of the Hong Kong stories the world needs to hear.