HK Executive Council - bent rulers
Updated: Jun 28, 2020
One of the reasons why Hong Kong is in its current state of political unrest is that its democracy is less than what it should be, and certainly not the kind of democracy the people of the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China truly wish for. It's too easy for any nation, state or organisation to say it operates along democratic principles. Democracy is not a black and white, yes-no matter. Democracy operates along a continuum with some behaviour or approaches to managing decision-making or governance being fairer or more equitable than others.
Take for example, electing a leader : is it more democratic to choose from three or four different candidates that are nominated by the people themselves, or to be presented with just TWO potential leaders that are selected by some aloof representative committee that do not even know your concerns or wishes? Alternatively, democratically elected representatives that you voted into office might choose a paramount leader from amongst their ranks, and give you NO say in who it will be at all!
As it now stands there are a raft of problems with democracy in Hong Kong - things that undermine what is spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights about every citizen having the right to elect their government, about the interpretation of electoral rules, and implementation of elements of both the Joint Declaration and The Basic Law. Rather than try to cover every problem, allow me to just focus on the troubles with the current Executive Council in HK and the executive-lead style of governance.
You may well wonder exactly what or who is the Executive Council (Exco) and how it contributes to democracy in Hong Kong (HK). Exco is the top policy-making body of the HK government, and it generally comprises an equal mix of lawmakers from the Legislative Council (LegCo) and principal government officials, though public figures can be invited to join. As provided for under the Basic Law, members of the ExCo are appointed by the Chief Executive (CE) according to standing orders. Exco advises the CE on matters relating to the introduction of bills and subsidiary legislation in LegCo.
Exco does have its rules: Exco members must be Chinese citizens as well as HK permanent residents with no right of abode in any foreign country. As the CE is forbidden by law to be a member of any political party, Exco effectively becomes his/her cabinet. Members need not have close ideological or personal ties to the leader, however they can and frequently do. Exco operates on strict confidentiality and a principle of collective responsibility. Meeting minutes are not made public. It is up to the administration to determine when and how Exco decisions are announced, though frequently the responsibility falls to the CE.
Strangely, in the current government it's possibly more important to note what the CE says to journalists before she enters an Exco meeting, rather than when she comes out of one! Her comments are more likely to be candid and less of a prepared speech. You'll be lucky if she smiles!
The full list of current Exco members is available online and some of them have their own personal agendas and 'skeletons in the closet'....no need to go into that further here!
Since being elected as CE, it has been Carrie Lam's modus operandi to exclude pan-democratic lawmakers from her Exco cabinet.
The very critical point to note is that Exco has an inordinate amount of power over the direction taken by the HK government.
For example when the CE introduced the ill-fated Extradition Bill in 2019, which she has insisted was her own idea without any push from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Government in Beijing, she could only do so with the approval of Exco. It should be noted that after things went awry with that Bill, CE Lam was somewhat upset that her own Exco was less committed to it than she had expected them to be. By March 2020, she apparently wrote in correspondence with Beijing, a complaint about her “unsatisfactory” cabinet and a suggestion that the coronavirus outbreak could be spun to the government’s advantage (see our blog on political point-scoring).
Well, I wouldn't say that the either the HK government or the CE has been entirely successful in handling the coronavirus outbreak, or in winning back the support and confidence of the public lost so heavily in 2019 (see our blogs about how HK people reduced Covid-19 transmission and on the mask fiasco).
Before moving on to more recent events, let us consider statements made by the CE and others in her government concerning the dastardly Extradition Bill [bold added by me] :
15 June 2019, Hong Kong Free Press...."At a press conference on Saturday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said pro-Beijing lawmakers had urged the government to delay the bill, and said Taiwan had made it clear it would not receive the murder suspect whose case triggered the proposal....
"...When Lam was asked on Saturday if the postponement would satisfy the public, she said she still believed her initial intention for the law amendment was correct, given that the pro-establishment camp supported her..."
20 June 2019, HKEJinsight...."...the pro-establishment figures in her inner circle, as well as certain politically accountable officials, are also to blame for the upheavals because they have not done their duty of advising the chief executive against her bad decisions...
"...after the chief executive had announced the suspension of the extradition bill on June 15, all pro-establishment camp lawmakers as well as Executive Council members immediately did a 180-degree about-face on their support for the law revision...
"Apart from the pro-establishment camp, a number of key officials on Lam’s cabinet should also be held accountable for this severe political crisis in the history of the SAR...
"In particular, Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah had ignored every piece of advice made by the local legal sectors throughout the entire episode, and did nothing but play yes-man, while members of the pro-Beijing camp were overwhelmingly dancing to the government’s tune, until public outrage finally boiled over."
9 July 2019, SCMP, Sum Lok-kei andTony Cheung..."...pro-establishment lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun, speaking earlier on Tuesday, said officials should be resigning to take responsibility for the uproar caused by the bill....
“In the coming three years, there must be officials stepping down to fulfil the accountability system,” Tien told a radio show, referring to the time left in the current administration’s term.
Tien, however, refused to say whom he had in mind....
"...Tien, a lawmaker of the Roundtable group, also suggested that Exco members should not have background links to political parties and should remain politically neutral."
13 January 2020, SCMP., Alice Wu..."During the last days of 2019, lawmaker and Executive Council member Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee dropped a political bomb that, unfortunately, went pretty much unnoticed. Ip revealed that members of the Executive Council, the chief executive’s de facto cabinet, had considered resigning en masse amid the ongoing anti-government protests."
"Here’s how Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor responded to the extraordinary piece of political news, according to Ip: she rejected the idea because Exco was only on the “periphery, merely giving advice”.
"This is a shocking revelation about the nature of the Exco...."
"...Let’s not kid ourselves: in an executive-led governance system, Exco plays a crucial role...
"Political crises involving bad political judgment speak directly to the effectiveness and competence of the chief executive and his or her Executive Council."
Having shed some light on the functioning of the current Exco in HK, we should reflect on its failings - Michael Tien and I are not alone in our view that Exco is problematic.
In The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Article 20.3 states (quote):
"The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures."
Other than the fact that the CCP continues to deny HK people this fundamental human right to universal and equal suffrage in the election of the CE, and the rather odd arrangement by which functional constituencies in Legislative Council (LegCo) are a hangover from its initial establishment at the handover, how come ExCo is granted authority without any specific mandate indicated by "the will of the people". The authority of the government has been usurped; it has become a political prize that is tossed around like a basketball amongst the CE and those who happen to be appointed to ExCo.
Shock horror, when in November 2019 Chief Secretary for the HK Government, Matthew Cheung, went on record stating that it was not clear why HK people were so angry or why they were continuing to protest in the streets. He said "...he had no public opinion poll on hand to explain public anger against the authorities..." How could a prominent figure in ExCo be so unaware of what the people of HK think and feel that he and his colleagues are dependent on public opinion polls!? And saying this after 6 months of recurrent protests!
Without knowing what is driving the people of the SAR, upon what basis does Exco then make its decisions?
One critic did give Cheung some credit writing in SCMP, that "Those mocking Cheung should note that he accords public opinion the respect it deserves. Certainly, he takes it more seriously than his boss, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor." I won't bother outlining the CE's few failed attempts to hold public dialogue, or her reasons for dispensing with them altogether.
Peter Kammerer, writing in Inkstone, said that "Hong Kong leaders who claim not to know what is behind the violence strafing the streets need only look in the mirror. Their arrogance, self-entitlement and ignorance are the ultimate cause."
Many would say that ExCo is surreptitiously being driven by instructions either from the HK and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) based in HK, or directly from the CCP.
But, since the Exco meetings are secretive it is not possible to definitively gauge the extent to which the CE is governing on the basis of advice from her cabinet, on her own impulse, or in response to some other influence outside Exco.
Let us assume for at least a few paragraphs that there are some lawmakers with influence, and consider what they have to say about the National Security legislation proposed by the NPC at the end of May 2020. The CE wrote a disturbing "open letter" to the citizens of HK, but despite what she had to say the supposed urgent need for the legislation, its constitutionality, lawfulness and reasonableness are ENTIRELY IN DOUBT! You can reflect on these comments, as I have, and decide on their relative merits:
Justice Secretary, Teresa Cheng
Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng says it is completely ‘false and wrong’ to say Hong Kong has lost autonomy.
Chief Secretary for Administration, Matthew Cheung
"99.99% of the Hong Kong population will not be affected, they'll go about their lives, they continue their investment in Hong Kong," Cheung said.
Cheung said the legislation is aimed at fully implementing the principles of "one country, two systems,"...."the people of Hong Kong governing Hong Kong" and a high degree of autonomy, and keeping core values of Hong Kong and the determining factors of its success.
Secretary for Security, John Lee
Speaking at LegCo HK Secretary for Security John Lee defended Beijing’s looming imposition of a national security law. With reference to weekend protests opposing both the impending National Anthem and National Security laws, Lee said: “Rioters blocked roads, vandalised shops, committed arson and assaulted citizens and the police … This again proved the necessity and urgency of imposing a national security law in Hong Kong.”
“Terrorism is growing in the city and activities which harm national security, such as ‘Hong Kong independence’, become more rampant,” Secretary for Security John Lee said in a statement. (Japan Times)
Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, Eric Tsang Kwok-wai
Speaking on the sideline of a Legco meeting, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang Kwok-wai was asked if chanting “end one-party dictatorship” would be criminalised under Beijing’s proposed National Security law. Tsang sidestepped the question, saying only that Beijing’s plan was “constitutional and legitimate”.
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It's scary that unelected Exco members are some of our key decision-makers in HK. It's also scary that so often our fears, and concerns are being brushed aside. Our complaints are ignored and the autonomy of HK sacrificed in the all too vague interests of 'national security' (see our blog on CCP national security claims). Is every member of Exco truly qualified to be in such an important role, and are they actually allowed to do a good job in that role for the good of HK?
It appears the CE and Exco do not always take advice from qualified and experienced professionals when making decisions:
25 January 2020, SCMP, In response to the China coronavirus, the CE adopts advice from medical experts to keep schools closed and cancel the annual Standard Chartered HK Marathon, but draws a line at calls to close border with mainland China.
29 April 2020, RTHK, Professor David Hui, a member of the government's anti-epidemic team said that his panel of medical experts was not involved in the decision to exempt two groups (cross-border teachers and students, and businessmen) from the mandatory quarantine arrangement for mainland arrivals, saying it was a decision made by the Executive Council.
Any decision to allow cross-border students to travel back and forth between HK and Shenzhen without any quarantine is not one to be taken lightly as it reportedly involves as many as 27,000 students. Schools were set to begin partially reopening in HK from 27 May 2020.
As said earlier, one of the issues with Exco is its lack of transparency. If the decision-making process was made more public, the key factors impacting decisions expressed respectfully and clearly to the public might instil greater confidence in governance and give the CE and her Exco some credibility.
What better way can the will of the people be ascertained than through openness, negotiation, and public consultation?
The way to improve democracy is through active engagement, active participation as candidate, as voters, as citizen critics. As we have said previously, the fundamental thing is that governance gets its authority from the will of the people. It must therefore be heard, measured and understood.
Many states have chosen to ask all their citizens their opinions through public referendums, particularly on controversial matters. A very good example of this is the referendum held in Scotland in 2014 concerning its membership of the United Kingdom. We can see that the outcome of their referendum ("No" to independence) has been respected. In May 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise same sex marriage by popular vote after a referendum found there was 62% support for it.
We the People of HK do aspire to having strong and stable democracy in the SAR, and therefore having a public referendum as soon as one can be organised would be incredibly useful in mapping out a way forward for the governance of our city, and bringing an end to the nascent political impasse. We propose that such a referendum provide a range of options, and for voters to rank their preferences (see our blog on this democratic method of voting).
So a referendum is a natural action to solve a complex political problem.
This leaves us with the question about what to do with the 'bent rulers' that now serve the people of HK. Rather than deliver HK the 'high degree of autonomy' that was promised under the Joint Declaration, the CCP with a complicit CE and Exco have instead delivered a high degree of deception and trickery!
Pro-democracy lawmakers have been more or less dealt a bad hand of cards, from a deck loaded in Beijing's favour. They have been blocked again and again, with rules stacked against them or manipulated to their disadvantage. The filibustering for which they are blamed comes as no surprise - so often they are just wishing to be heard and have their valid objections noted. Being in opposition is not solely about blocking or using your power to veto government legislation, though some people have reduced governance and what happens in LegCo to a mere facade or imitation of democracy in action.
Unsurprisingly, HK's pan-democrats have been excluded from any consultation or mainland forums with central authorities over the proposed National Security legislation as authorities in Beijing aren’t interested in listening to any dissenting views.
Lau Siu-kai, senior Beijing adviser and vice-chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said on 3 June 2020 that because the opposition fundamentally disagrees with Beijing’s decision to impose security laws on the SAR via Annex III of the Basic Law, mainland officials consider it impossible to accept their opinions. He said that involvement of pan-democrats would just delay the entire process, and also that a request from the Hong Kong Bar Association for the authorities to launch a full public consultation would not be possible. He indicated that such consultation would slow things down and and prevent authorities from using the law to quickly stamp out the ‘rioting and chaos’ in HK.
Such is the determination of our authoritarian government! When Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, Chris Patten, commented on the arrest of three pro-democracy figures in the city on 29th March, 2020, he said it shows that Beijing is “throttling” decency and freedom in the city. Given the dysfunction of Exco and the CE's habit of kowtowing to CCP we would say that things are much worse than that - we say that democracy and governance in HK is being castrated!
The solution, as recommended by a number of people and human rights groups is to enact global Magnitsky Act sanctions against HK leaders. Magnitsky legislation refers to laws providing for governmental sanctions against foreign individuals who have committed human rights abuses or been involved in significant corruption. Moves to #SanctionHKExCo would have a chilling effect on these legislators, among other things potentially freezing their assets and restricting their travel.
Very useful to this end would be a document prepared by the independent, crowdfunded group of individuals who have come together to fight for what was promised to the people of HK in the Joint Declaration: their organisation is known as "Stand with Hong Kong". In December 2019 they published an updated 120-page report titled "Profiles of Hong Kong Repression: Perpetrators of Human Rights and Democracy Abuse" (it can be downloaded in PDF format from here or from their website).
On 5 June 2020, U.S. senators Chris Van Hollen of the Democratic Party and Pat Toomey of the Republican Party jointly raised the matter of sanctions against SAR financial institutions at a U.S. senate banking committee hearing. They said there was a need for swift
congressional action on their HK Autonomy Act, to introduce sanctions against individuals and banks deemed to be eroding HK's autonomy. The aim of the act is to "impose mandatory sanctions on entities that violate China’s obligations to HK under the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law." The legislation would also impose mandatory secondary sanctions on banks that do business with the entities in violation of the Basic Law.
WTPOHK would not deprive the CE of having a team of advisors, however we do demand open, transparent and accountable decision making processes as they are key to our high degree of autonomy and our democracy.
Librarians sceptical about book giveaway: survey 26 June 2020, RTHK
"Eight out of ten local school librarians polled by the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union (PTU) say they suspect a HK$60 million book giveaway to local students would end up benefiting publishers linked to Beijing."