Several Beijing loyalists adopted an adversarial stance as self-styled “bad boys” daring to hold the government accountable at the inaugural meeting of the new legislative term in Hong Kong on Wednesday.
Analysts said the legislators, newly elected under Beijing’s “patriots-only” electoral overhaul, were keen to prove to the central government and residents that they were willing to challenge Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor at a time of mounting dissatisfaction with government performance.
The pro-establishment bloc has a near complete lock on the expanded 90-member Legislative Council, after a sole centrist was returned last month and the opposition camp steered clear of a poll that they argued was aimed at sidelining critics.
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During a question and answer session that lasted two hours, a number of lawmakers criticised the government for its anti-pandemic strategy which they said had failed to contain a growing outbreak fuelled by the Omicron variant.
While Chan Hoi-yan, of the new Election Committee constituency, slammed Lam’s approach as riddled with holes, veteran lawmaker Michael Tien Puk-sun pressed the leader twice for an apology over the government’s quarantine policy of cargo aircrew members, who are at the centre of the emerging fifth Covid-19 wave.
A combative Lam squarely dismissed alternative strategies proposed by Chen to keep the virus in check and even mocked Tien for his “election” slogan.
“I understand and agree with your attitude of ‘not blindly support or blindly oppose’, but you cannot blindly criticise anti-epidemic officials for not performing their job just because of violation of rules by one individual,” she said, in an apparent reference to the Cathay Pacific aircrew members who flouted home isolation rules and brought Omicron into the community.
Chinese University political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung said the pro-establishment lawmakers were endeavouring to display their political backbone to both Beijing and residents following the electoral overhaul.
“They decided to go hard on the pandemic as it is a topic which Beijing and members of the public care about, while also being politically neutral,” he said.
Political analyst Derek Yuen Mi-chang, who previously served as policy research director for the New People’s Party, said some members of the camp were exploring a new “bad boy” model in the absence of competition from the opposition that would allow them to win media attention and prove themselves.
He pointed to a petition that 15 lawmakers, all but four of whom are newcomers, signed earlier this week urging Lam’s administration to require people to supply their names to use the official “Leave Home Safe” app that tracks potential exposure to Covid-19.
Some of the signatories were among the 20 lawmakers who last week attended a birthday party of a local delegate to the national legislature, Witman Hung Wai-man. The event snowballed into a public health scandal after two guests later tested positive for Covid-19 and photos surfaced that suggested social-distancing rules were broken.
Lam has vowed to take “appropriate actions” against senior officials involved if they were found to be breaking the rules, expressing disappointment to the 14 who joined the party along with more than 200 others. She ordered the officials, which included the heads of police, immigration and home affairs, to use their leave for the required quarantine at the government facility or at home.
The 20 lawmakers who attended the party also adhered to calls by Legco president Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen to watch the meeting online rather than take part in person.
During the session, 17 lawmakers asked questions, but none raised the issue of the birthday party. As many as 39 others waiting in line for their turn missed out due to the time limit, including centrist Tik Chi-yuen.
Expressing his disappointment, Tik said: “Following all the incidents involving officials, [Lam] gave no mention of the problems in the existing political accountability system… that’s the elephant in the room. The system should not exist in name only.”
Speaking after the meeting, Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, defended the decision not to bring up the incident.
“I believe we already raised issues our supporters cared about. It should be the government who takes the incident forward by conducting the probe,” she said.
Martin Liao Cheung-kong, the convenor of the pro-establishment bloc, called the absence of the 20 lawmakers “regrettable”.
“Of course we hoped all 90 lawmakers could show up,” he said.
But Liao added their decision to stay away also demonstrated “sensibility”. Some suggested earlier that they would still take part in person despite having attended the party.
The Election Committee’s Chan, who drew the ire of Lam, later told the Post that the leader had misread her remarks as she was neither trying to undermine the contribution of the medical workers nor suggesting the government’s anti-pandemic effort was “full of loopholes”.
Chan also said it was discouraging that the chief executive spent as much time as she did delivering her speech and making remarks that were emotionally charged, but added it was good lawmakers were doing their best to monitor Lam’s work.
“We weren’t doing it deliberately to show we are keeping Lam on her toes. We are reflecting our constituents’ views,” she said.
Novice lawmaker David Lam Tzit-yuen, who represents the medical and health services sector, said he wanted to ask Lam about primary health care but did not have the chance as he was not very familiar with the electronic system on his desk.
Lam appeared willing to engage with the legislators throughout much of the session, which ran half an hour longer than scheduled due to her extended opening speech. Analyst Choy said the leader had tried to demonstrate a tough governing style, as she had in the days following the party scandal. Lam has not said whether she will seek a second term in the leadership race in March.
While several of the exchanges were fiery, the legislature is likely to be largely cooperative with the government over livelihood issues, according to Choy. But it would be too optimistic to expect the relationship would drastically improve, he said, pointing to Lam’s combative style and the rift between her and the pro-establishment camp following the birthday party saga.
Many of the lawmakers who attended the party tried in the days after to shift the blame to the city’s flagship airline Cathay Pacific and even the government’s policy over aircrew management.
“Their discord has now become an open secret. The pro-establishment lawmakers might not raise or challenge any political issues, [but] they might pick on the government in other livelihood matters,” Choy said. “Even if they eventually voted for the proposals, the government’s credibility or image might still be hampered.”
The relationship between the executive and legislative branches eventually rested on the choice of the chief executive, he said.
Wednesday’s meeting, however, was just the first in a legislative season that is expected to be extremely busy, and the lawmakers have plenty of time to decide which approach with the executive branch they want to take.
Category: Hong Kong