Carrie’s Sticky Start

When she took up office last summer, Carrie Lam had several factors working in her favour: she was not CY Leung; she was an intelligent and hardworking official with a deep understanding of Hong Kong’s government; there were, and remain, few political stars in the local firmament to prompt odious comparisons.

But it’s all going wrong.

To be fair, she inherited a difficult job in difficult circumstances. Beijing’s intrusions into matters deemed domestic – such as booksellers – coupled with their sovereign desire to curtail what they see as a nascent independence movement have increased rather than diminished local suspicions of their intentions.

Further, the challenges faced by the government, economic and social – above all the cost of housing as discussed in previous posts – are difficult if not intractable. They do not invite quick solutions.

Benjamin Disraeli, a 19th century British prime minister and novelist, once wrote that ‘no government can long be secure without a formidable opposition’. So a wicked fairy gave Hong Kong Legco, an infantile body that harasses government without effectively challenging it.

Yet there have been avoidable blunders such as the current problems of Rimsky Yuen’s replacement, Teresa Cheng, as justice secretary.

One would have hoped that after the crisis over Henry Tang and his illegal basement and C Y Leung’s less egregious modifications to his house officials would be more effective at vetting potential talent. But no.

On this point, nothing has been learned and while Carrie Lam’s plaint that tempting good people to join the Government is very difficult may be true – she is still stuck with Paul Chan – it is beside the point. Professional competence does not give you a pass to flout the law.

The issue of the Mainland policing of the West Kowloon rail terminal has presented a major problem for the Hong Kong Government, for Legco, for the Hong Kong population and for Beijing.

Arguably, it is the most damaging crisis for Hong Kong/Beijing relations since the reversion of sovereignty in 1997.

The presence of foreign officials working at international border crossings is established practice in France, where British immigration officers were first stationed at Calais and Dunkirk ferry terminals in 2004. They were also operational at Eurostar rail terminals in Paris, Lille and Calais. Their brief, to turn back potential illegal immigrants.

US preclearance officials operate at many Canadian airports as well as at airports in other nations.

In these circumstances, the prospect of Chinese officials operating in Kowloon to clear passengers destined for mainland China would not be exceptional. The argument in favour of such an arrangement is straightforward: it would speed travel to mainland cities, avoiding lengthy border delays down the line.

The argument against, setting aside general local suspicions of Beijing policies, is and remains legal. Article 18 of the Basic Law states that national laws shall not be applied in the HKSAR. Article 22 states that no department of the Central People’s Government may interfere in the affairs of the HKSAR.

The argument for the legitimacy of the policy hangs by a slender thread on Article 19, which reserves to the Central Government jurisdiction ‘over acts of state such defence and foreign affairs’.

To her credit, perhaps, Carrie Lam has sought refuge in personal attacks – those opposing the West Kowloon arrangements are ‘elitists’ – rather than defending the barely defensible in law.

And the last resort of those seeking obfuscation rather than legal clarity, Elsie Leung, was dispatched to do the rounds of media arguing the only problem was the failure of opponents to understand the Chinese constitution.

If not a case of an irresistible force encountering an immovable object, the West Kowloon issue nonetheless represents the clash of the socially and commercially desirable with the legally intractable.

It demonstrates that ultimately the law of Hong Kong is force majeure, the irresistible sway of superior strength. What Beijing wants, the Basic Law will be interpreted to grant. And the Hong Kong Government will enforce.

And yet, it may not be a crisis at all, merely a demonstration of the realities of ‘a high degree of autonomy’ 20 years into the life of the HKSAR. This is a discouraging prospect both for the people of Hong Kong and Carrie Lam. One hopes, however, she avoids the fate of her three predecessors and does not come to a sticky end. She is the best hope the city has.

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