ANALYSIS: Political Vetting in the Hong Kong Election

ANALYSIS: Political Vetting in the Hong Kong Election
Photo Credit: Reuters / 達志影像

What you need to know

The principle of official political vetting has now been applied in Hong Kong over the issue of independence.

The powers that be, in Beijing, have done their best to circumscribe elections here. It began long ago with all the constraints written into post-colonial Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution. Beijing has remained on guard ever since, first delaying the Basic Law’s tempting hints of possible progress toward electoral reform, and then parceling it out in miniscule Beijing-directed proportions.

But somehow, Hong Kong always manages to find ways of pushing back. That contest of wills is now playing itself out again over the new political litmus test that was introduced, arbitrarily and without advance notice, just ahead of nominations for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council election. Election Day is Sept. 4. The nominating period was July 16-29.

To qualify, in addition to all the usual details, every prospective candidate had to sign a pledge, under pain of committing a criminal offense, affirming his/her commitment to Hong Kong’s post-colonial political order.

Specifically, aspiring candidates had to reaffirm their commitment to Article One of the Basic Law that says Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China. They also had to agree that the basic policies for Hong Kong, as stipulated in the Basic Law, cannot be amended.

These specifics were included on a new supplementary confirmation form. The original standard nominating form contains only a general pledge to uphold the Basic Law. Both were required of prospective candidates for the September 4 election.

Hong Kong and Beijing officials explained the reasons for the added requirement. Unorthodox ideas were taking root here and must not be allowed to grow. The ideas were variously described as localism, separatism, autonomy, self-determination, and independence – without actually specifying what each was thought to mean. Chief Secretary Carrie Lam (林鄭月哦), the second highest official in Hong Kong’s government, said some people had begun agitating for Hong Kong’s independence from the mainland and were campaigning on this demand.

Zhang Xiaoming (張曉明), who is Beijing’s highest ranking representative here as head of its liaison office, said that if independence advocates are allowed to register as candidates and turn their election campaigns into agitations for independence, and perhaps even gain entry into the Legislative Council, that would violate Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution.

Current Legislative Council president, Jasper Tsang Yok-sing (曾鈺成), said the same thing and it was repeated may times over by other loyalists. Said Tsang: either sign the form or stay out of the election.

But later he seemed to have second thoughts because he said something to the effect that it might not be such a good idea for Hong Kong’s government to arbitrarily bar candidates from participating in the election on political grounds since that would contradict assumptions about how local elections are supposed to be held here. Tsang was quoted as saying: "... if the government does things that make people feel that our laws can be set aside, and that people can be barred from running, the cost would be too big for us."

Photo Credit: Tyrone Siu / Reuters / 達志影像
Hong Kong Indigenous member Edward Leung speaks after being disqualified from running in the Legislative Council elections in Hong Kong, China, Aug. 2, 2016. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu - RTSKP1R

Candidates respond

So without any specific guidelines as to legal liabilities or political consequences or any precise yardstick the administering authorities would use to validate nominations under the new rule, aspiring pro-democracy candidates responded in different ways.

The authorities in each of the five election districts are called Returning Officers. These are politically neutral civil servants, albeit working in the loyalist-led Home Affairs Department. They reportedly didn’t want to take on the new political vetting chore when it first came down from on high but were given to understand they had no choice in the matter.

Most pro-democracy candidates refused to sign the new confirmation form and submitted the standard nomination papers without it. But then strange things began to happen. Some soon received notice that their nominations would be validated or that they had been. Others heard nothing for several days. Still others received e-mails asking for clarification of their political views on Hong Kong independence.

As to why the new confirmation oath was apparently waived in some cases but not others, according to informal explanations given to candidates and journalists, if there is no public or social media record of prospective candidates ever having actually advocated independence, the new confirmation requirement could be waived.

This solution seems to have been allowed for veteran pro-democracy candidates who have participated in past elections and not said or done anything too adventuristic since. Both Democratic Party and Civic Party leaders are, for example, on record as saying they are for self-determination but not independence – without being too specific about what they mean by either term. Their nominations were all approved, although they didn’t sign the new confirmation form.

It was the younger set that seems to have created the greatest headaches for their Returning Officers. Especially difficult were the first-time aspirants from the post-2014 Occupy generation of political protest.

Candidates from the new Youngspiration (青年新政) alliance, for example, said they personally supported the idea of independence. But this group does not formally endorse the idea as part of its political program. They nevertheless do intend to include independence as an option for a referendum on Hong Kong’s future after 2047 when the Basic Law’s guarantees are due to expire. Of course, since there are no indications in the Basic Law as to Hong Kong’s status after 2047, there is no legal or logical reason not to indicate independence along with all the post-2047 possibilities.

This is also the position of the new political group Demosisto, founded by student leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung (黃之鋒), and others. But its one candidate, Nathan Law Kwun-chung (羅冠聰),currently has more urgent things to worry about. He, along with two others including Wong, have just been found guilty of illegally storming a closed area at the Legislative Council complex. This action, which culminated a week-long student strike, precipitated the onset of the Umbrella-Occupy protest movement two days later, on Sept. 28, 2014.

Nathan Law is currently negotiating the terms of his sentence. If he promises not to engage in such behavior again, he could get off with community service. But he doesn’t want to make such a promise because he feels that his action was a justified case of civil disobedience. This could mean a custodial sentence, which might call a temporary halt to his budding political career depending on the appeals process (The News Lens, July 29). He refused to sign the confirmation form but his nomination for the September 4 election was approved.

The case of Hong Kong Indigenous (本土民主前線) leader Edward Leung Tin-kei (梁天琦) was even more complicated. His group allegedly precipitated the Mong Kok riot last February and he is currently awaiting trial on that charge. He nevertheless ran in a Legislative Council by-election a few weeks after the Mong Kok violence and did far better than expected, winning 66,000 votes.

Edward Leung filed for an urgent judicial review challenging the legality of the new confirmation requirement but the court declined to accept his plea on such short notice. He then changed his mind about the confirmation form and submitted a signed copy shortly before the nomination period ended. He also took down his Facebook page and deleted all mention of independence from his social media postings – so as to deprive the authorities of their main excuse for invalidating his candidacy, or so he thought.

One of the few unabashed advocates of independence, Andy Chan Ho-tin (陳浩天), convener of the new Hong Kong National Party (香港民族黨), not only refused to sign the confirmation form but refused to reply when his Returning Officer sent an e-mail asking for more information about his political views. He argued that the officer had exceeded his legal authority by demanding such information since neither the Basic Law nor the Legislative Council Ordinance contain provisions to bar candidates for their political views.

But if citations could be given for the most provocative response, the prize would go to the Civic Passion-HK Resurgence-Proletarian Political Institute alliance. These groups are among the most boisterous in all respects both physically and verbally. But they also do some serious political thinking. They include the godfather of the localist city-state autonomy movement, Horace Chin Wan (陳云) and Raymond “Mad Dog” Wong Yuk-man (黃毓民). But none of them have actually advocated independence.

The response of Civic Passion’s (熱血公民) candidate for HK Island, Alvin Cheng Kam-mun (鄭錦滿), reflected their views. At a press conference, he claimed he had answered his Returning Officer’s e-mail questions by saying their campaign had been misunderstood.

They are not agitating for independence and say they hold the Basic Law in higher regard than anyone else. Their aim, in fact, is to keep it forever without the 50-year Basic Law limit – once it has been properly legitimized via a popular referendum and re-written by both Beijing and Hong Kong to conform to the true spirit of the “one-country, two-systems” promises in the Basic Law. Raymond Wong said he personally does not advocate independence. But he will not oppose the younger activists who do.

In retrospect, the two leading officials responsible for overseeing the new confirmation exercise did make accurate statements at the outset about how it would be implemented. They had obviously thought it through and prepared their work plan. It’s just that Fung and Lam didn’t elaborate their cryptic comments so that anyone outside the bureaucracy would be able to understand what exactly they aimed to do with their new confirmation form.

Judge Barnabus Fung (馮驊), who heads the Electoral Affairs Commission, was reported to have told pro-democracy legislators during their July 19 meeting that failure to sign the new confirmation form did not necessarily mean automatic disqualification . That was right. It didn’t.

And Carrie Lam was quoted as saying the decision might not be as simple as whether or not the form was signed. She was right. It wasn’t.

But assuming no one had insider privileged information, all prospective candidates had to learn-by-doing without knowing whether they were doing the right thing or not.

Photo Credit: Chan Ho Tin 陳浩天
Andy Chan Ho-tin, convener of the Hong Kong National Party and independence advocate.

A case of mainland-ization

In one and the same breath – actually one and the same speech – Beijing’s liaison office director Zhang Xiaoming had said independence advocates would violate the Basic Law and should not be allowed into Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. Yet Beijing had no intention of mainland-izing (內地化) Hong Kong. He emphasized in his July 20 speech that the central government absolutely did not want to turn Hong Kong into just another Chinese city like Shanghai or Guangzhou or Shenzhen. But another step was taken in that direction anyway.

The deed has now been done and the precedent set. The nominations of six candidates have been invalidated, not because they refused to sign the new confirmation form but because when asked they refused to disavow their commitment to the idea of Hong Kong independence.

For sure, the practice of party-management prevails across the border. Local universal suffrage elections have been commonplace for years, as have indirect elections for delegates to the people’s congresses above the county level. The catch is that the communist party organization, ubiquitous at every level, decides who can stand as candidates.

The principle of official political vetting has now been applied here, specifically over the issue of Hong Kong independence. But henceforth there will be other related political issues as well. For example, Nathan Law who signed all the forms and was cleared to contest the election despite his pending court case, has been told his promotional pamphlets cannot be sent out while the authorities are seeking legal advice. The advice they seek concerns whether words the materials contain such as “self-determination” and “civil referendum” should be allowed.

The prospective candidates who have been denied permission to contest the September 4 election are, in the order they were announced during the past week:

Andy Chan Ho-tin, convener, Hong Kong National Party. Independence advocate. He signed the standard nomination form but not the confirmation form and refused to respond when his Returning Officer requested more information.

Yeung Ke-cheong from a little-known new group calling itself the Democratic Progressive Party. He had refused to sign even the original standard nominating form because of the general pledge it contains to uphold the Basic Law.

Nakade Hitsujiko, fringe candidate associated with Hong Kong Resurgence who calls himself a Hong Kong nationalist and cross-dresses to campaign as a woman in old-style Japanese costumes. Original name: Chung Ming-lun. Signed the confirmation form.

Alice Lai Yi-man, Hong Kong Conservative Party, advocates ultimate self-determination for Hong Kong after its return to Britain.

Chan Kwok-keung, independent, advocates Hong Kong independence.

Edward Leung Tin-kei, Hong Kong Indigenous. As a candidate in last February’s by-election, he advocated autonomy for Hong Kong but has since upgraded his thinking to include independence – until he did an about-face a few days ago when he signed the confirmation form. His Returning Officer didn’t believe his sudden transformation was genuine. Of the six invalidated candidates, he is the only one who had a realistic chance of winning a seat.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The piece was first published here.

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole