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Interview: Ex-head of legislature Jasper Tsang says the gov’t is weakest player of four in Hong Kong’s struggle

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Jasper Tsang is a veteran politician of the pro-Beijing camp who managed to impress both sides as a notably impartial president of the legislature between 2008 to 2016. In a wide-ranging interview last month, he shared with French academic Jean-Philippe Béja his thoughts on the continuing crisis in Hong Kong, why he supported the extradition bill and why the political paralysis persists. 

Jasper Tsang

Jasper Tsang. Photo: LegCo.

Jean-Philippe Béja: Since the beginning of June, a huge movement – perhaps the largest in the history of Hong Kong – has rocked the city. What are the factors which, according to you, explain it?

Tsang Yok-sing: I guess it is the largest movement in the history of Hong Kong. Everyone, including our friends the pan-dems, were taken by surprise. Such an enormous scale! Now that we are four months into it, with the benefit of hindsight, we shouldn’t consider it was surprising at all.

Many of us should have known that Hong Kong people had been unhappy, angry with both the Hong Kong government and the central government. Unhappy for two reasons:

First, we were promised in the Basic Law that we would have full democracy. And in 2007, the central government told us we could elect the Chief Executive by universal suffrage in 2017. We tried to do it, but in 2014 we failed to reach an agreement. The result is that not only did we lose the chance to elect the CE in 2017, but we also lost the timetable.

Now we don’t know when – the timetable is gone. So many young people feel that there is no hope for them to see democracy in Hong Kong. This is one reason for their anger.

pan democrats political reform

Pan-democrats campaigned against the government’s political reform package in 2015. File Photo: Civic Party, via Facebook.

The second reason lies in our social inequalities. Our economy has grown reasonably well in the last 20 or 30 years, but ordinary people don’t feel that they can share the fruit of our growth. Young people see social inequality getting worse; the wealth gap is widening and our problems are the most striking in housing.

When I started working 50 years ago, when I finished university, after a few years I could buy an apartment and then sell it to buy a bigger one. So I was able to improve my living conditions.

Now it is different for the middle class. I recently talked to an accountant. She said ‘I’m OK, I own my home, but I cannot improve. And then when my children leave university they won’t be able to buy a home.’

Now, if you say young people are rebelling because they can’t buy a home, it is not fair. Because they see that no one can buy a home. The fruits of economic growth have gone to big developers.

lion rock

File photo: Wikimedia Commons.

But these two problems are linked. The Chief Executive is selected by an election committee, not by the people, and the election committee is dominated by big business. So in the eyes of the people, and especially the young, the government always stands on the side of big business, never on the side of the poor.

Another thing. This resentment very easily turns into anger towards China. We don’t have democracy because Beijing doesn’t allow it, and life is so hard for Hongkongers, because of people coming from the north, the rich ones, come to buy our property so our prices are so high. They take away our resources; every day, 150 people from the mainland settle in Hong Kong, 50,000 people coming [anually] from poorer places in China who take our public housing, schools etc…

This is not really true. The government has often explained – and the NGOs that help these new immigrants have explained – that these immigrants provide the labour we need so badly, contributing to the economy. But public opinion is negative.

immigration tower wanchai

Immigration Tower. File photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

That is why the extradition bill sparked so much anger. All of a sudden, people in Hong Kong have thought that the government was taking away the firewall between Hong Kong and the mainland.

I have defended the bill because I thought it is ridiculous that, for historical reasons, not a single fugitive has been sent back to China in 22 years. Though China has sent back Hong Kong criminals when the government demanded it.

Béja: But people don’t trust the government, especially after the kidnapping of booksellers and tycoon Xiao Jianhua…

Tsang: This is true. But in both cases, the booksellers and Four Seasons tycoon were not sent to China legally because we lack the legal framework. For 22 years, the Hong Kong government has been negotiating with the central government without success, because Beijing didn’t want to accept the conditions required by the Hong Kong side.

Chan Tong-kai Taiwan murder suspect released prison "October 23"

Chan Tong-kai, the murder suspect whose case sparked a political crisis in Hong Kong. Photo: Stand News.

And, all of a sudden, thanks to the effort of the Chief Executive, Beijing accepted… the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance passed before 1997, which was drafted in consistence with international criteria, [for extradition] on a case-by-case basis.

The Hong Kong government regarded it as a major breakthrough. Beijing had accepted our conditions. The booksellers couldn’t be sent to China. I was telling people, the government doesn’t ask you to believe in the judicial system in China. For example, we don’t believe in the judicial system in the Philippines. However, there are extraditions as there is an agreement.

Because, if there weren’t, it would be very easy for criminals in the Philippines to flee to Hong Kong and vice-versa. Now it is easy for criminals from China to come to Hong Kong, and there is nothing we can do. This is bad for the people of Hong Kong. That’s why I supported the bill.

But then people said: we don’t only not believe in the judicial system in China, we don’t believe in the Hong Kong government either. If the Philippines government asks for someone to be extradited there, the government can refuse. But if Beijing requires it, the Hong Kong government can’t refuse.

court china

A court in China. File Photo: Xinhua.

This is a problem. I told many diplomats in Hong Kong. You don’t have to fear that your nationals will be sent to China – it is not possible. They replied: in China, anything can happen. So this is the problem. And that is why this article triggered the crisis.

Once it started, people found that it was their way to vent their feelings.

Béja:  The anger that had been accumulated in the last five years, with the kidnappings, the invalidation of elected LegCo representatives…

Tsang: You’re right. In the last five years, the Hong Kong government and many of my colleagues in the pro-government camp thought that we were winning victory after victory; but every time, people became angrier.

Béja: Why did the CE suspend the bill and not withdraw it?

Tsang: Carrie Lam was very proud of her accomplishment, and she perhaps had not expected the strong opposition from the pan-dems, who were determined not to let it go through LegCo.

September 5 Carrie Lam

Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

This made the c entral government angry. It didn’t think the bill was so important, but then it became a matter of governance. Beijing said that if the government was tabling a bill, it had to pass it, and it was giving it all the necessary support.

So after the demonstrations of June 9 and 12, when the CE was convinced that it was impossible to get the bill through Legco, she reported to Beijing. But, as she and Beijing were still convinced that there was nothing wrong with it, that they had only underestimated the opposition by the people, the central government told her to suspend it and make more consultations to submit it later.

When Carrie Lam announced the suspension, she still said that it had been the right thing to do, that the purpose of the bill was to suppress loopholes in our law that had to be suppressed.

But the people didn’t accept that, and the protesters put up their five demands. And it became a kind of political confrontation. At the same time, my colleagues in the pro-government camp were angry with the government, because they had defended the bill, explaining why it was necessary, when all of a sudden the Chief Executive suspended it.

protest china extradition

Sunday, June 16. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

I guess she thought that if she withdrew the bill, it would be unacceptable to her supporters and to Beijing. This became more and more irrational.

Carrie said that a suspension was equivalent to a withdrawal. The protesters were saying:  “Say the word!”, while our side said: “Don’t say it!” Finally, when she said it, the other side said: “we’re not satisfied with that.”

Same thing with the other demands: a commission of inquiry. She doesn’t want to do it because of objection from the police. But my colleagues said: “You said ‘no’, there is no need for such an inquiry; the IPCC is enough. Don’t betray us again!”

But we don’t know, maybe in a week or two, it will be set up… It seems the government is unwilling to do anything until it is too late.

Béja:  You are a respected politician. You have a say. Why don’t you say that you are in favour of such a commission?

Tsang: Not only me. A few weeks ago, after [Lam] announced the withdrawal, she mentioned four things she was going to do including the dialogue. She said she would organise meetings and – for a start – invited twenty people. I was among them and we had a meeting at Government House – almost everyone said that, if she wanted to start a dialogue, she should have to do something, and that the independent Commission was the thing to do. And I believe she has been hearing the same thing almost every day from various advisers. But she says it’s impossible. That day, she told us she couldn’t do it because of the opposition from the police.

It is not that the police doesn’t allow her to do it. Carrie Lam explained that the morale of the police is quite fragile, and that the government can’t do anything that would harm [their] morale. Perhaps she told Beijing that it was necessary to boost the police’s morale, and therefore the central government came in support of the police.

hunger strike government house

Hunger strikers and their supporters wait outside Government House for a meeting with Carrie Lam in July. Photo: inmediahk.net.

Béja: In France, we often blame the police for what happens. But if a government doesn’t negotiate with protesters but only relies on the police, this means that violence escalates. Besides, the refusal to give letters of no objection to most demands for demonstration has been viewed by most people as an unbearable limitation of their freedoms. Now, protesters hate the police.

Tsang: You are right. At a very early stage, two weeks after the start of the movement, hate of the police became the most important motivation for people to join the protests. And violence has been escalating again after the mask law.

kwun tong china extradition august 24

Photo: May James/HKFP.

The problem is that Carrie has met all sorts of people, including young people involved in the violence. She has listened to all sorts of advice. Some people say you can’t rely on the police, you have to reach out.

She organised the first dialogue, but violence didn’t stop. So hardliners said that she had given rioters an opportunity to vilify the government, and that therefore she shouldn’t engage in dialogue any more…

Another problem is: you can go on talking to the people, but what can you do? Of the five demands, the one demanding the release of all those who have been arrested can’t be met; even the pan-dems know it.

Even if she agrees to negotiate on real universal suffrage, it will still be very difficult to come to an agreement. It can’t be done at once and satisfy everybody. The only demand that could be met is the commission of inquiry.

Béja: If you declare publicly that it is necessary to set it up, it might help.

October 16 LegCo policy address protest

“Five demands, not one less.” Photo: Inmediahk.net.

Tsang: Judge Andrew Li said it.

Béja: But nobody from the DAB has.

Tsang: Good point. However, the DAB won’t go public with anything they know the government can’t do. In private, they have been urging Carrie to establish it. But as long as she refuses, they won’t say anything.

Béja: What‘s the exit strategy?

Tsang: I’ve approached a number of people whom I know are in close contact with frontline policemen, from the rank and file. I’ve heard that some among the rank and file don’t object to an independent commission, as they see it is as a way to clear their reputation. I asked them if they could take a public stance, but they all have replied that the police would never accept it.

Xi Jinping

File photo: Xi Jinping.

Béja: Isn’t Beijing opposed to that commission? Which leads to more violence?

Tsang: It is dangerous for Hong Kong. I don’t know what the people in Beijing want. Up to now, they have no intention to interfere.  Now, I see four players:

  1. The protesters: they don’t have any intention to stop.
  2. The people: a large part of our population is supporting them.
  3. The SAR government: it is incapable of doing anything, Carrie Lam has admitted it. The government is made up of very competent administrators but there are no politicians.
  4. Beijing: they have no intention to interfere.

If all this doesn’t change, we cannot expect it to end.

The central and the SAR governments want to appeal to the public to denounce the radicals. But it is not working.

My hope lies in the protesters; it seems that, recently, some of them have called to stop the violence. And there is a very good reason for that. Elections are coming and it is very probable, as public sentiment is very much against the government, that if they take place in November, the pro-government camp will lose.

2019 District Council election briefing session

2019 District Council election briefing session. Photo: Citizen News.

These protesters say: if you go on with more violence, you may alienate more people and give an excuse to the government to postpone the election. But we don’t know how much the most radical protesters will listen.

Béja: If the situation is such, will the DAB be hostile to elections?

Tsang: Some of us have thought of that, but it is not the mainstream thinking, because we know it would create a backlash. If the elections are postponed by two weeks, which is allowed by the law, it won’t change anything.

To postpone it for a longer time, you need a new law. If the government invokes the Emergency Regulations Ordinance it will have a negative effect in Hong Kong and in the international community. And the Legco elections will come next year; voters could make us pay for that delay.

So the majority of the DAB leadership says that we will have to face it; elections will come, and it is the government’s responsibility to prevent disruption.

september 29 china extradition protest admiralty

File photo: May James/HKFP

Béja: During the protests, there have been thousands of arrests. The protesters say they cannot abandon their comrades-in-arms.

Tsang: You’re right. I made a proposal: the government should offer amnesty with two lines drawn:

  1. You can’t pardon very serious crimes, serious bodily harm. But many of the people who have been arrested didn’t commit serious crimes.
  2. A line on time. The government should say: the CE is going to grant an amnesty, but you have to stop the violence. Those who continue to engage in violence after a certain date will be punished. We have put this to the government.

But, once more, there are others who tell Carrie an amnesty is out of the question. Some people say that even young boys should bear criminal responsibility, that any talk of pardon will breed more violence, which I don’t agree [with].

However, our biggest problem is that the weakest of the four players is our government. There is no strong decision-making mechanism. The CE listens to the hardliners, and there is no politician who could take responsibility.

Jasper Tsang

Jasper Tsang. Photo: LegCo.

Béja: Why don’t you? You can relate to people in both camps.

Tsang: It is difficult even for me to maintain dialogue. Even if I could, there is little I can do.

Béja: If moderates in both camps got together, there might be a solution. If there are no discussions with the government, no progress, more and more people could despair, and turn towards independence.

Tsang: I wish more people in the government thought like that. Tell it to C.Y. Leung.


Jean-Philippe Béja is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Centre for Scientific Research and the Centre for International Studies and Research at Sciences-Po, in Paris.  An observer for decades of relations between society and the Party in China, he has written extensively on intellectuals and on the pro-democracy movement in the PRC, and on Hong Kong politics.


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Interview: Ex-head of legislature Jasper Tsang says the gov't is weakest player of four in Hong Kong's struggle