Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has slammed a former opposition leader for “not understanding democracy”, after the politician said it would be “humiliating” for would-be lawmakers to seek nominations from their political rivals as mandated under Beijing’s sweeping overhaul of the city’s electoral system.
While Lam did not name the ex-lawmaker, former Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing had spoken of “humiliating” requirements for the opposition camp after China’s top legislative body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, approved a drastic plan to shake up Hong Kong’s political framework on March 30.
At a question and answer session in the Legislative Council on Thursday, Lam said: “Anyone who publicly pursues a political career should not feel humiliated for striving for nominations. Those who said [it was humiliating] do not understand the essence of elections and democracy.”
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The chief executive also confirmed a bill would be tabled at a special Legco meeting next Wednesday that would include amendments to five key ordinances aimed at getting the city “back on track” following the political turmoil of recent years.
Lam added that the bill would still be subject to the approval of her de facto cabinet, the Executive Council, on Tuesday.
Under the sweeping revamp approved by the standing committee on March 30, the newly powerful 1,200-member Election Committee will be expanded to a 1,500-strong body to further cement the pro-establishment camp’s dominance.
It will be made up of five sectors representing elements of the business community, professionals, social groups, local politicians and Hong Kong delegates to the national legislature and other mainland Chinese bodies.
All potential candidates for Legco elections must first get nominations from two to four members in each of the committee’s five sectors.
The new requirement was “humiliating” for the city’s pro-democracy forces, said Lau, who urged her allies against joining elections scheduled for December.
But Lam on Thursday, referencing only “a veteran political party member and former lawmaker”, said calling the process humiliating was “completely wrong”.
Lam recalled how she also sought nominations from among the pan-democrats in the Election Committee when she ran for the top job in 2017.
“Although more than 300 members [of the Election Committee] openly said they would not nominate me, I still explained my vision to them in a humble manner … I never felt humiliated, even though it was not a pleasant experience, as some reprimanded me for an hour before allowing me to talk,” she said.
At the time she ran, Lam was considered Beijing’s favourite for the job and was expected to secure more than enough nominations, even without any pan-democrat support.
Speaking to the Post, Lau said the chief executive’s citing of her own campaign experience was like “comparing apples and oranges” in light of the drastic difference in the nomination requirement. The former lawmaker also questioned whether Lam had Beijing’s definition of the term “democracy” in mind when she launched her attack.
“I don’t really bother to understand so-called democracy with Chinese characteristics. What I’m looking at is the international standard,” Lau said. “What’s for sure is that obstacles for running are much higher with the new composition of the revamped Election Committee.”
The resignation of the remaining pan-democrat lawmakers in November following the disqualification of four of their colleagues by Beijing meant all the questions directed at Lam during Thursday’s 90-minute Legco session were asked by pro-establishment legislators.
Financial services representative Christopher Cheung Wah-fung expressed concern over whether the international backlash against the electoral revamp might affect the faith of foreign investors in Hong Kong.
Lam said her administration, including overseas offices, would continue to rebuke reports they regarded as wrong by foreign media outlets.
“We feel angry about the biased reporting of the foreign press. Some overseas governments have also smeared what the Hong Kong and Chinese governments have done,” she said.
Lam also insisted the electoral changes were aimed at improving governance, not stifling dissent.
“What happened in the past caused trauma among some colleagues … If [proposals they were in charge of] had to be scrutinised in Legco, their passion was reduced because they knew they might face smears or personal attacks,” she said, pointing to the opposition’s strong criticisms and use of filibustering tactics.
“Luckily, the central government acted swiftly. Otherwise, the damage would have been bigger.”
She was also asked how average residents’ views could be effectively reflected to the government as the number of directly elected seats to the legislature would be slashed from 35 to 20.
Lam urged residents to take their concerns to members of various municipal-level bodies dominated by the pro-establishment camp including area committees, district fight crime committees, district fire safety committees, and “associations of Chinese fellow townsmen”.
Each of those groups are in line for roles on the Election Committee once 117 district council seats dominated by the opposition have been scrapped.
Lam said the five key pieces of legislation to be amended included the Legislative Council Ordinance, the Chief Executive Election Ordinance and the District Councils Ordinance.
The changes will redraw the boundaries for Legco’s geographical constituencies, redefine voter and candidate criteria in some functional constituencies, update candidate nominating methods, outline a new vetting committee’s duties, and address the possibility of election manipulation – something the government previously said could include calls for casting blank protest ballots.
Lam previously said she hoped the legislation would be passed by the end of May, and that the Legco elections, originally postponed from last year to this September, would further be pushed back to December to make time for the Election Committee polls.
The Election Committee and chief executive polls were targeted for September this year and March 2022, respectively.
Lam also said she and her 16 ministers had been busy explaining to the public why Beijing needed to introduce the changes to the electoral system.
“By Wednesday night, we had organised five internal briefings and 68 other sessions for various sectors. We also did eight media interviews and distributed about 100,000 pamphlets. Such explanatory work will help the council in scrutinising the bill … and make more residents support the reforms as necessary and urgent,” she said.
In the past week, the question of making it illegal for voters to cast blank ballots to protest against the electoral overhaul has become the subject of escalating debate, particularly after Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang Kwok-wai said authorities would make adjustments to the law if necessary.
Tsang addressed the issue at a separate Legco meeting on Thursday morning, saying the administration would properly distinguish between disruptive election activities and normal canvassing should there be any amendments to the existing laws.
“If someone encourages, organises or incites others to turn in blank or invalid ballots, thereby denying [the election’s legitimacy] or sabotaging the election, there might be a need for the government to find appropriate measures, or amendments to the law,” he said.
Tsang said encouraging the public to cast protest votes could be seen as “manipulating elections”, a possible violation of the Basic Law’s Annex I, freshly amended by Beijing, though residents who did so would not be penalised.
“Individuals have the right to vote and can choose to vote or not. We absolutely respect citizens’ exercise of this right,” he said.
Additional reporting by Tony Cheung
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