Hong Kong, 13 October 2021: Just four days after Hong Kong endured its first typhoon of the year, our city is being doused by a second one. Last Saturday, Tropical Storm Lionrock brought typically violent winds and torrential rain, causing the No.8 signal (the third-highest level of alert) to be in force for 22 hours, making it the longest typhoon here for 43 years. Now, as I write, Typhoon Kompasu – upgraded from Tropical Storm status early this morning – is upon us until at least 4:00pm (thus surpassing Lionrock for length) and most sensible people are at home or, even better, in a bar.
While it is uncommon to have two typhoons in quick succession, it is much in keeping with these surreal times. Madcap weather is just another facet of Hong Kong’s bizarre new normal. In our weird world we have full hotels but no tourists (just staycationers and residents doing quarantine); cruises to nowhere (passenger liners taking travel-starved citizens for a quick trip to the open seas and back); social distancing rules that limit public gatherings to four people but allow up to 12 per table in restaurants; mandatory Covid-19 testing for domestic helpers but not the families with whom they reside; and attempts to comply with Beijing’s public health requirements (in order to reopen the mainland border) without knowing what those requirements are.
To this illogical list we can now add a political party that doesn’t contest elections. Our city’s biggest opposition group, the Democratic Party, set a deadline of 6:00pm on Monday for members to apply to stand in December’s Legislative Council polls. Party chiefs stipulated that potential candidates needed to secure 40 nominations from fellow members and get a green light from the leadership at a subsequent meeting. No one stepped forth.
The party has been split over whether to contest the LegCo polls since Beijing imposed sweeping electoral reforms to ensure only “patriots” run Hong Kong. While LegCo has expanded from 70 to 90 seats, the number of directly elected seats is reduced from 35 to 20. Moreover, candidates must earn a prescribed number of nominations from this city’s all-powerful, pro-mainland Election Committee and be vetted by the new Candidate Eligibility Review Committee – chaired by government No.2 John Lee – which may also consult the National Security Committee.
While this stacks the odds against any government opponent wishing to stand, there have also been suggestions in pro-establishment quarters that the Democratic Party would be in breach of the national security law if it banned members from taking part, as this could be interpreted as undermining the electoral overhaul. Heads I win, tails you lose.
Democratic Party veteran Han Dongfang was willing to put his hand up, but admitted on Monday he couldn’t muster even 10 nominations, let alone 40. Colleague and former lawmaker Fred Li, another of those in favour of contesting the LegCo elections, accused party leadership of erecting an insurmountable hurdle: “They set such a vetting mechanism, it is in effect asking members not to run.” Party Chairman Lo Kin-hei, unsurprisingly, disagreed.
On reflection, I do find the democrats’ stance strange. Any government needs an opposition to hold it to account. Even if the eligibility criteria and nomination process for the LegCo polls are tilted against anti-establishment candidates, it is surely in their interests – and those of citizens wishing to vote for them – to put forward candidates, thus highlighting any perceived flaws in the new system and at least giving John Lee and his colleagues some work to do. As it is, they have chosen to sit in the corner and sulk.
You won’t find much logic, either, in Hong Kong’s quarantine regulations. This is the forthright opinion of Dr David Owens in his most recent blog, where he states: “There is no scientific evidence to support 21-day quarantine. It is neither evidence-based nor proportionate and is almost certainly doing more harm than good.” He expands on this topic and discusses other Covid-19 issues in his latest podcast with epidemiologist Professor Ben Cowling. As always, I recommend listening. Both health professionals, by the way, are in different stages of 21-day isolation having returned from overseas trips. The latter is detailing his ordeal via his Twitter feed – @bencowling88 – which makes for pertinent reading.
But perhaps nothing better epitomises Hong Kong’s peculiar new normal than the perception that the people supposedly in charge – ie Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her team – in fact are not. Beijing’s liaison office here has compiled a lengthy to-do list for our leaders after an unprecedented outreach programme to “listen directly” to ordinary citizens. More than 80% of liaison office staff took part, visiting 979 subdivided flats, public housing units and small and medium-sized enterprises, and talking to almost 4,000 citizens, including the elderly, unemployed, new immigrants and ethnic minorities – in other words, some of this city’s most vulnerable, defenceless and disenfranchised residents. Liaison office Deputy Director Lu Xinning confirmed her colleagues would make such campaigns a regular activity from now on. Keeping a low profile is no longer their modus operandi.
Carrie, of course, dismissed suggestions mainland officials here were forming a shadow government before admitting that, while having advance notice of the outreach drive, she only discovered its scale upon reading a newspaper report. Ever dutiful, she quickly made a point of thanking the liaison office for its efforts. Clearly, we don’t need typhoons to remind us that the winds of change are blowing through Hong Kong.
Stay safe and well, everybody!
Boase Cohen & Collins