Captain Robert Jenkins has a unique place in British history. His severed ear, presented pickled in a jar before Britain’s parliament, triggered a war between Britain and Spain, which lasted from 1739-1748.
Jenkins was a merchant captain and smuggler. His left ear had been lopped off by a Spanish coast guard, who had boarded Jenkins’ ship while it was en route from the West Indies. The war had little to do with the loss of Jenkins’ ear but a great deal to do with British commercial ambitions in the Caribbean and Britain’s right to sell slaves in Spanish America. Nonetheless, the conflict subsequently became known as The War Of Jenkins’ Ear.
This event, a classic example of a minor incident leading to a wider and much deeper conflict, sprang irresistibly to mind while watching Leung and Yau making a mockery of their oath-taking in Legco. Their folly and essential triviality was underlined when later at a meeting in Taiwan they suggested that Hong Kong should somehow ‘insulate’ itself from China.
Some may argue in defence of Leung and Yau that they are serious people in pursuit of the serious goal of an independent Hong Kong. Nonsense. Elected on a protest vote, they advocate a cause that nobody but themselves and the terminally deluded take seriously.
But the political skills they had demonstrated in achieving their electoral success gave hope they had the potential to mature into responsible politicians able to contribute significantly to public life in Hong Kong. Disappointment has been great. The damage caused by their misdeeds has been considerable: their stunt has wide and deep implications for the future of Legco and the protection of Hong Kong’s culture and values.
Consider this: if they had taken the oath in the proper form on 12 October they would now be fully accredited and recognised members of Legco. There was no walkout or forum call threatened that day by the pro-establishment parties. There was no opposition voiced to their taking their seats in the chamber. Further, their membership of Legco, validated under the leadership of a president appointed for his establishment credentials, would most likely have deterred the call for a judicial review by the Government.
In these circumstances, their election would have introduced a wider spectrum of opinion in Legco and marked the beginnings of a transition of power to a new generation of politicians. These opportunities have been squandered.
Further, the judicial review initiated by the Government of C Y Leung creates a threat to the already limited powers and prerogatives of Legco.
The outcome of the review is, of course, unpredictable, Justice being blindly impartial. But one does wonder on this occasion whether Justice will also be deaf. Will the interventions of Beijing loyalists, the threat of further Legco quorum calls, and the wobbles of the Legco president over permitting a second oath-taking opportunity for Leung and Yau, combine to influence the outcome of the review?
One hesitates to suggest such a distortion of justice under Hong Kong’s rule of law, but it appears increasingly unlikely that Leung and Yau will ever get to take their seats.
Such an outcome would raise further issues:
First, those who voted for them would effectively be disenfranchised. Would by-elections be held to replace them? Would Yeung and Yau be barred, and if so by what legal process, from standing again?
Second, the extensive interventions by Beijing and its surrogates in the election process will be seen as a new high water mark for its controlling influence in Hong Kong and be accordingly resented. Public manifestations of such resentment are likely to lead to further interventions from Beijing.
Third, the public’s residual respect for Legco will be further damaged by the exclusion of two duly elected representatives, however childish their behaviour has been. As a result Legco’s ability to fulfill its function as a body able to critique government policy and represent the interests of the electorate will be reduced.
Leung and Yau will never achieve the notoriety of Robert Jenkins. Their activities and travails lack the drama of his injury. But the damage they have done to Hong Kong governance will not be forgotten. Yet wrapped in their cocoon of self-righteousness, it is doubtful they will ever grasp the magnitude of what they have done.