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World is watching this Far East drama

Hong Kong, 10 March 2021: Movie buffs may recall The Last Picture Show, an evocative portrayal of a decaying Texas town in the 1950s whose fate is encapsulated by the closure of its cinema. The film is a nostalgic look back, with director Peter Bogdanovich communicating regret over the passing of an era. Hong Kong is as far removed from a one-horse dust bowl as you can imagine, but there was still poignancy in this week’s news that cinema chain UA has succumbed to the “unavoidable and devastating pressure” of the coronavirus pandemic, closing down after 36 years of entertaining film fans.

Supporters of our city’s democracy movement may feel they are also facing the final credits now Beijing has outlined its plans for electoral reform. Under the principle of “patriots governing Hong Kong”, the establishment-dominated Election Committee – which chooses our Chief Executive – is expected to add a further 300 to its current 1,200 members and be given powers to nominate all candidates for the Legislative Council elections. It also appears likely the LegCo polls, postponed last September for a year due to Covid-19, will now be put off until 2022.

The leading lady in this production, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has naturally welcomed these developments, thanking her bosses for their “timely, lawful and constitutional” intervention which will result in “plugging the loopholes” in the electoral framework. She has ruled out a formal consultation exercise and is promising an “intensive” drive to explain the proposals to the public – similar tactics to those she used for her doomed extradition bill two years ago. Observers might question whether our government’s communication skills have improved since then. Ms Lam also insists the changes are not targeting pan-democrats, although there seems little doubt her sworn opponents will be excluded from the revamped political process.

In any event, some of these political protagonists might still be behind bars when the new-look LegCo finally convenes. The bail saga of the 47 activists charged with subversion under the national security law rumbles on. After a marathon four-day hearing at West Kowloon Court last week – during which defendants went sleepless and hungry, were denied a change of clothes for several days and four were admitted to hospital suffering from exhaustion – 15 were granted bail by the magistrate but remained locked up because government prosecutors challenged the ruling. That objection was subsequently dropped in four cases, leaving 11 to appear before the High Court, where the judge remanded them in custody pending further hearings tomorrow and Saturday.

Last week’s regrettable (and entirely avoidable) chaos prompted a Judiciary statement claiming mitigating circumstances and promising a review of the handling of cases with a large number of litigants. Yet our courts have previously dealt with matters involving dozens of triad suspects by dividing them into batches. Further, there is no reason why defendants should travel to court rather than tune into remand hearings via video link. It is almost a year since I highlighted the urgent need for the fast-tracking of modern technology into our court system. The onus is on our Department of Justice and Judiciary to deliver sensible and efficient administration of justice. Last week, we did not get it.

If Hong Kong has enjoyed a starring role on the global economic stage, there are those who consider it no more than a bit-part player now. Our city has disappeared from an annual ranking of the world’s freest economies. For more than two decades, we were No.1 in the Index of Economic Freedom, until Singapore knocked us down to second place last year following 2019’s social unrest. Now the report’s publisher, the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, has lumped Hong Kong (and Macau) in with China, languishing in 107th place. It says economic policies here are ultimately controlled by Beijing. Our Financial Secretary Paul Chan has rejected this notion, saying the report is tainted by “ideological inclination and political bias”.

Hong Kong is also nowhere near the top of the Covid-19 vaccination league table. In fact, for doses per 100 people, we are currently 68th globally, one place below Rwanda. This week, the proportion of people turning up for their vaccine appointment has fallen from 90% to 72% after three fatalities among those who received the mainland-produced Sinovac jab. A panel of experts has concluded the first two deaths were not linked to the vaccine and is investigating the third. There have been other reports of individuals being admitted to hospital after vaccination. More than 113,000 citizens have been inoculated with either the Sinovac or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine since the drive launched almost two weeks ago. I have stressed before the importance of being vaccinated and this government needs to do a much better job of educating the public. For the record, Hong Kong confirmed 21 new Covid-19 infections yesterday, pushing the overall total to 11,120, with 202 related deaths. We are told to expect more than 10 new cases today.

In closing, I should mention that after almost two decades, The Last Picture Show spawned a much-delayed sequel, Texasville, reuniting many of the characters in the same old town. It wasn’t as good as its predecessor and nowhere near as successful. Meanwhile, back in the real world, we await the latest twist in the tale of Hong Kong. Watch this space.

Stay safe and well, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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