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Political squabbling is kicked into touch

Hong Kong, 27 October 2021: I love football refereeing. Not only is it healthy exercise and a fulfilling social activity, its core components – rule of law, equitable decision-making and appraising each case on its merits – appeal to my instincts as a legal professional. Almost 50 years after my debut as a teenaged match official on London’s hallowed Hackney Marshes, I still enjoy the adrenaline rush of striding onto the pitch, ball in hand and whistle at the ready, to take charge of a game. And so I’m full of anticipation ahead of my first outing of the new season, Friday evening’s showdown between Hong Kong Football Club Gazelles and Wanchai Wolves. While not quite El Clásico, it will be keenly – and, I hope, fairly – contested.

Someone else who understands the perils of trying to keep order between opposing sides is Legislative Council President Andrew Leung. He has just brought down the curtain on LegCo’s occasionally chaotic and always memorable sixth term by hosting the traditional closing dinner for lawmakers, ministers and senior officials. Mr Leung’s usual role limits him to speaking only when making rulings at meetings, so he seized the opportunity to give a light-hearted address summing up LegCo’s work in the past half-decade. It has been, as he noted, quite a ride.

Six opposition lawmakers being unseated shortly after the 2016 election for improper oath-taking set the tone. As the 2019 anti-government protests took hold, radicals stormed the LegCo Complex and ransacked the main chamber. The shocking video footage was beamed around the world, shattering our city’s reputation for stability and rule of law. The building was repaired – at a cost of HK$40 million (US$5.14 million) – in time for Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s policy address that October, but she was forced to deliver it via video due to heckling from opposition members. Not content with that, the same bloc adopted filibustering tactics for several months which effectively paralysed the legislature.

LegCo’s term was supposed to end in 2020, but Beijing backed a Hong Kong government decision to delay the election, citing health risks posed by Covid-19. Cynics questioned whether Carrie & Co were, in reality, worried about a repeat of the opposition’s landslide victory in the District Council polls some months earlier. Surely not! Some opposition lawmakers refused to serve the extra year, then another 15 resigned over a Beijing intervention that disqualified four of their colleagues. Hence it was a markedly pro-establishment gathering that Mr Leung hosted on Monday evening. I trust they raised a toast to absent friends.

In fairness to the pro-Beijing bloc, some of them have at least been vocal in pressing our government for a pandemic exit strategy. And so it is worth noting that yesterday brought a significant shift in Hong Kong’s “zero Covid” policy … Carrie tightened it even more. She announced an end to quarantine exemption privileges for most travellers as her administration steps up efforts to convince the Mainland to reopen our border. Further, health officials have ramped up discharge conditions for infected citizens. From now on, they can leave hospital only after testing negative twice and must then spend an additional 14 days in quarantine at a government facility. Nice.

Hong Kong has been granting around 38,000 quarantine exemptions per month. Many of these are truck drivers, but others include government officials, public officers, diplomats and senior corporate executives. The vast majority of these are being scrapped. “These are all measures taken to make the central government more confident in allowing us to resume border travel,” explains our Chief Executive, soothingly.

Business leaders are at the end of their tether. The Asia Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, which includes some 150 banks and asset managers, has written to Financial Secretary Paul Chan saying members “fear that if Hong Kong does not develop and communicate a clear and meaningful exit strategy from the current zero-case approach, as is the case in many other jurisdictions, Hong Kong risks losing its vital international status”.

Reacting to the government’s latest measures, Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades President Simon Wong remarked: “It just shows that the border reopening won’t come any time soon.” Lee Cheuk-sun, Convenor of the Hong Kong Travel Professional Union, spoke for many when he lamented: “We can’t see the light at the end of this never-ending tunnel.”

There is some good news, though. If you’re undergoing compulsory isolation at the Penny’s Bay government quarantine camp on 19 December, you can still vote in the LegCo election. The Electoral Affairs Commission has promised to set up a polling booth there. Just don’t expect too many pan-democrats on your voting slip. Some of them are locked up, others have fled into exile and more have retired from politics. Further, Hong Kong’s drastic electoral revamp – with stringent candidate eligibility requirements ensuring only “patriots” run this city – makes it almost impossible for opposition figures to stand. The Democratic Party won’t be fielding any runners and the Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood has just announced it won’t either.

Safe to say, the legislature’s seventh term is certain to be less eventful than its sixth. Unlike my refereeing assignment this Friday, it appears the next LegCo President will have, effectively, just one team to keep in order.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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