Hold on to your hats and everything else that is dear to you. Typhoon Haima may be behind us, but a frightful storm of another sort is rapidly approaching, and a direct hit would be devastating.
Consider the consequences if the government of Leung Chun-ying wins its court challenge against Legislative Council President Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen and thus prevents the seating of two directly elected lawmakers, Sixtus “Baggio” Leung Chun-hang and Yau Wai-ching, both radical localists representing Youngspiration.
No matter what you think of the two enfants terribles who precipitated this crisis by choosing to turn a pro forma LegCo swearing-in ceremony into a farcical and, for many, offensive display of protest, a ruling against them would signal the death of any notion of LegCo as a separate, independent branch of the Hong Kong government and, indeed, the death of Hong Kong politics as we know it.
That’s a +10 signal on the Hong Kong political hurricane scale. The effects would be calamitous and the clean-up immense.
Not that Hong Kong politics as we know it has been anything close to inspiring. Since the city’s 1997 handover from British to Chinese sovereignty, our quasi-parliament has been a fractious forum whose structure guarantees ultimate control by Beijing but leaves room for vigorous dissent from Hong Kong’s pan-democrats.
In the past 19 years, this self-destructive formula has produced ever-greater control and ever-greater dissent. During that time, the frustration level of the opposition has risen to the point where almost anything goes in the LegCo chamber. Orderly objections have been abandoned in favour of fruit-throwing (and later even glass-hurling) protests whenever the chief executive and his ministers have dared to appear before the council.
Still, nothing changed for the democratic better. Seemingly, the more outlandish the protest, the harsher the response from the powers-that-be in Beijing and their loyal representatives in the Hong Kong government.
But now we have reached a point of no return, where the antics of duly elected localists who profess to support “the Hong Kong nation” have turned the LegCo oath into a litmus test for patriotism, and the government has happily taken the bait.
LegCo’s 39-strong pro-Beijing block was quick to seize what they see as their advantage, staging a walkout last Wednesday that prevented the new LegCo president – whose own election a week earlier was also mired in chaos and controversy – from offering the two Youngspiration lawmakers-elect a second chance at the oath due to lack of a quorum. The rising public outrage over the rejected pair’s oath-taking shenanigans and the court’s 11th-hour decision on Tuesday to hear the government’s case certainly lent support to the timing of the walkout.
Now the convenor of the pro-Beijing block, Martin Liao Cheung-kong of the Commercial functional constituency, is threatening more walkouts unless the president reverses his decision to allow the localist pair to retake their oaths.
The High Court is scheduled to hear the government’s case on November 3, leaving us nearly two more weeks of high-wire political drama and suspense that, no matter what happens, simply cannot end well. Some possible scenarios, however, are worse than others.
For example, let’s imagine that Andrew Leung bows to the intense pressure he is now under from his pro-establishment LegCo colleagues and reverses his decision to grant the unruly duo another opportunity to recite their oaths minus any separatist banner-waving or added verbiage. If that happens, be prepared for a mass walkout by the pan-democratic camp and a rash of lawsuits filed on behalf of the ousted lawmakers, who would then become heroes and martyrs to their localist cause. In this case, who knows when LegCo would next see a sitting quorum or how the next four years would produce anything beyond additional rancour, protest and public disgust.
Yes, that would be bad, but it would be even worse if the president were to stick to his guns, endure two weeks of abuse and additional walkouts from pro-Beijing legislators and then get overruled by the court on the dubious basis that the Oaths and Declarations Ordinance does not allow for second chances and thus, as the government argued in its request for judicial review, the president has committed an abuse of power.
While it is true that the ordinance makes no mention of the retaking of oaths, it also does not expressly forbid such a practice, and LegCo’s rules and procedures clearly state that the president is in charge of setting the council’s agenda, which presumably could include an oath retake if that is justified in his judgment.
Indeed, in 2012, Andrew Leung’s well-respected predecessor, Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, allowed “Mad Dog” Raymond Wong Yuk-man to retake his oath after Wong had, like the two Youngspiration politicians, deliberately mangled it the first time around, shouting “Down with the communist regime in Hong Kong” before and after reciting the oath and coughing repeatedly during the oath itself. And, of course, some legislators – including another localist, Edward Yiu Chung-yim – were allowed to retake their oaths last Wednesday before the walkout scuppered the meeting.
Clearly, then, there is precedent for the second chance that has been granted to the Youngspiration duo. Thus, one can reasonably expect the court to rule against the government and leave LegCo affairs to LegCo. Perhaps then the radical pair will show some humility and maturity and take their oaths and their seats so that LegCo can get on with its business, albeit in a polarised atmosphere of constant conflict.
That, unfortunately, is about the best we can hope for.
If the ruling goes otherwise, however, Hong Kong would face not just a political crisis but also a judicial one as the court would surely be perceived as doing the bidding of the Leung administration and, by extension, the central government.
Speaking of which, in another worst-case scenario, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress could step into the fray with one of their dreaded “interpretations” of the Basic Law, effectively overruling the High Court if it decides against the government. That would throw LegCo, the Hong Kong judiciary and just about everybody else into a storm of fear and distrust that may never settle.