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Gradually robbed of power and meaning, it’s back to the colonial days for Hong Kong’s legislature

Some people say that the government’s determination to ram through its new extradition legislation without even allowing close scrutiny of its contents is undermining the traditions of the legislature.

Lamentably they are wrong, because the reality is that what’s happening now is consistent with Legco’s history. Indeed the clock is being turned back to a time when the legislature had one function and one function only – to provide a veneer of legitimacy for whatever the colonial administration of the day wished to do.

Legislative Council Hong Kong

Legislative Council building in Hong Kong. Photo: Wikicommons.

Even by the standards of other British colonies, Hong Kong’s legislature was virtually powerless. When it was established it consisted entirely of officials, only in 1850 were so-called non-officials allowed in, but all appointments were made by the Governor, who retained the power of dismissal. A smattering of ‘locals’ were then brought in as long as they could demonstrate competency in the art of obedient hand raising. During the Japanese occupation, these same well-trained sycophants simply transferred their loyalty to the occupying power and moved it back again to the British when Japan lost the war. Interestingly, the same seamless shift of allegiances was on display again in the 1990s when the most stalwart colonial stooges quickly forgot their avid enthusiasm for all things British and mastered the art of waving red flags.

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But let’s not get sidetracked as what needs to be remembered is that it was not until 1985, well over a century after Legco’s establishment, that even a semblance of any elections were introduced into the composition of the council. The pace of change accelerated in 1991 and more fundamentally in 1994. However, proposals for reform were raised as early as 1916 and a far more ambitious plan was proposed by in 1946 by the Governor Sir Mark Young, both of these initiatives were quashed by the Hong Kong business community’s leading figures.

2012 LegCo election

2012 LegCo elections. File photo: GovHK.

Fast forward to 1996 which saw the emergence of a model for Legco that really appealed to Hong Kong’s incoming masters. It came in the shape of the Provisional Legislative Council, set up as a council in waiting for the 1997 handover and a way of ensuring that the 1994 constitutional reforms initiated by Governor Chris Patten would be killed off after the handover. The main attractions of the provisional body were that members were not subject to any form of representative election, ensuring that not a single critic of the incoming administration was represented.

Although this form of a legislature, an uncanny homage to the kind of Legislative Council established during the least democratic days of British colonialism, could not realistically be introduced after 1997, turning the clock back was always the main aim of the incoming sovereign power.

1997 Legislative Council

The final meeting of the colonial Legislative Council in June 1997. File photo: GovHK.

The process has been gradual but relentless. It began with Beijing’s officials taking a far greater interest in Hong Kong elections, effectively deciding who would run for office in the pro-Beijing camp so as to eliminate competition that would help the democrats. The loyalists were provided with access to extraordinarily large amounts of cash that not only financed elections but paid for a large network of operatives in the districts who were active even when elections were not underway. The all-powerful Liaison Office then got to work with the pliant media, leaking stories that would undermine the opposition while ensuring a good press for the loyalists.

This long-term strategy, primarily focused on building up the DAB, has yielded impressive electoral results, most successful has been the establishment of strong grassroots networks that allowed the anti-democrats to present themselves as the true defenders of livelihood issues.

But more was needed to dislodge opposition voices from the legislature. Thus a fusillade of action was launched, accelerating during the Lam regime. It began with the disqualification of candidates, followed by the expulsion of sitting members. Thus, regardless of election results, the pro-government camp now has an overwhelming majority in the chamber and can do more or less what it likes.

carrie lam

Carrie Lam. File Photo: GovHK.

It did not take long for the new majority to use its powerful position to change Legco’s rules of procedure to minimize debate and scrutiny of legislation. This latest step of expunging the scrutiny stage from a major piece of legislation takes us right back to the old colonial days when the concept of scrutiny meant nothing more than saying yes as many times as were required.

So, here we are, left with a legislature in control of people who see no merit in truly debating or scrutinizing legislation, who are obedient to the fullest extent, and who are well aware that not only financial support – but also political support – will be withdrawn if they step out of line.

Welcome back to 1843.

Gradually robbed of power and meaning, it's back to the colonial days for Hong Kong's legislature