Hong Kong, 26 October 2022: Fifty-six years ago, Mao Zedong famously swam in the Yangtze River to herald his resurgence as China’s supreme leader. It set a trend for his successors. Deng Xiaoping enjoyed an invigorating dip most days, even well into his 80s, while Jiang Zemin was also partial to a paddle, whether on the shores of the Dead Sea or the balmy beaches of Hawaii.
Alas, there was no sign of Chief Executive John Lee in his Speedos last Sunday as 1,500 adventurous citizens dived headlong into Hong Kong’s annual Cross Harbour Race. It was left to lawmakers Eunice Yung – “I feel good to have challenged myself” – Vincent Cheng and Yiu Pak-leung to represent our government in the mad dash from Wan Chai to Tsim Sha Tsui. For the record, teenager Jimmy Kwok was fastest over the 1km course in 14:26 while Athena Wong won the women’s race in 15:11.
No, Mr Lee is up to his neck with other priorities: a chronic housing shortage, well-documented talent drain, wealth inequality and a polarised society, to name a few. As well, public trust is running low. He has attempted to answer some of these issues in his inaugural policy address, clocking in at a whopping two hours and 45 minutes, promising to “build a better Hong Kong”. His pledges include:
- An all-out effort to attract overseas expertise and investment.
- Breakthroughs to address housing woes, including a new “Light Public Housing” scheme.
- Reform of the civil service to achieve a “result-oriented” administration.
- An overhaul of the healthcare system with a focus on prevention rather than treatment.
Has he delivered? Predictably, reaction is divided along political lines. Pro-establishment figures have hailed the Chief Executive as visionary (yes, really) and his blueprint as innovative. Others note his failure to produce a plan to stop professionals leaving – “He’s performing a blood transfusion but hasn’t stopped the bleeding,” observes political scientist Ivan Choy – plus lack of poverty alleviation policies and the glaring absence of a road map out of the pandemic. Citizens’ satisfaction with Mr Lee’s address was 33.7%, according to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, lower than the maiden speeches by all four of his predecessors.
Despite the best efforts of our swimmers and CE, however, the most waves were created by last Friday’s High Court ruling that it was unlawful for the government to void more than 20,000 Covid-19 vaccination exemption certificates issued by seven doctors who allegedly handed them out without proper medical consultation. In a judicial review, Mr Justice Russell Coleman declared Secretary for Health Lo Chung-mau had no legal power to declare the certificates invalid. In doing so, the judge noted the far-reaching impact this administration’s measures – via the Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance (Cap 599) – have had on personal freedoms:
“There must be extremely few laws that have ever had such a significant, long-term and wide-ranging impact on almost every aspect of a citizen’s ordinary and everyday life. Cap 599 and its subsidiary legislation has affected – and has often severely hindered or restricted, and sometimes entirely curtailed – shopping; eating; drinking; education; travel; public entertainment; trade; sport and sporting events; religious practice; medical care; fitness and exercise; personal care and grooming; where you can go; when you can go there; who you can meet; when you can meet; how many you can meet; how many can gather, even outside; what you must do before you go to certain places; what you must do when you arrive; what you must do after you leave; and more. Cap 599 has extended even into the privacy of your own home.”
Ouch! However, rather than accept the judgment or file an appeal, our government has simply amended the law to suit its wishes under a procedure that foregoes the need for Legislative Council debate. From today, Professor Lo can indeed annul any dodgy certificates. “Our government always acts in accordance with the law,” insists Mr Lee, while heaving a set of goalposts across a football pitch.
Further proof of this do-as-we-want approach comes with arrangements for the much-hyped Global Financial Leaders’ Summit on 1-3 November. It is reported the incoming fat cats will not be subject to all the usual restrictions for regular arrivals: they will be free to eat and mingle in private settings in restaurants and given convenience to meet clients and staff. And what if they test positive? While we risk being frogmarched off to Penny’s Bay, these high rollers can opt to leave on a private jet or yacht. It’s called privilege.
Tired of this soap opera? Covid-19 was gazetted as a statutorily notifiable disease on 8 January 2020. Within weeks, we had our first quarantine centre, school closures and social distancing rules. We have been living with these ever since. Time enough for Jimmy Kwok to do 98,000 harbour swims, John Lee to deliver 8,100 policy addresses or – with lamentable Liz Truss as the benchmark – the UK to get through 22 Prime Ministers.
I’m reminded of the old Russian proverb that there is nothing more permanent than a temporary solution. When will it end? Regrettably, our leader – as with the Cross Harbour Race – is not yet inclined to take the plunge.
Stay safe and well, everybody!
Boase Cohen & Collins