Hong Kong, 10 May 2023: The Romer’s tree frog is a rare species, native to Hong Kong. This tiny amphibian, first discovered on Lamma Island in 1952 by naturalist John Romer, mainly inhabits wooded areas near streams. Such is the tree frog’s ecological importance, one of its major habitats, Ngong Ping, is designated as a site of special scientific interest. As we look ahead to World Biodiversity Day on 22 May, it is also worth highlighting other endangered species in our midst. The Chinese pangolin, Eurasian otter, finless porpoise and countless others find sanctuary in Hong Kong’s extensive country parks and protected marine areas.
Yet the rarest creature of all exists here in the heart of our city, at government headquarters in Admiralty, where you can find Hong Kong’s only non-establishment lawmaker. Centrist politician Tik Chi-yuen is the last man standing after massive electoral changes in 2021, which came with the mantra of “patriots running Hong Kong”, sidelined pan-democrats and other government opponents. A social worker by profession and Batman fanatic in his spare time – his office resembles a temple to the comic book superhero – he is the sole member of the 90-seat Legislative Council who does not come from the pro-establishment ranks.
That Tik Chi-yuen is even a lawmaker these days is some achievement. He served in the pre-1997 legislature and was a founder of the Democratic Party, but left in 2015 after disagreeing with colleagues over strategy. He co-founded a new political group, Third Side, pledging to be “neither pro-establishment nor radical democrats”. Some 20 months ago, he passed the tough “patriots-only” vetting procedure to stand for the 1,500-member Election Committee – the powerful body that chooses Hong Kong’s Chief Executive – and grabbed the last social welfare sector seat with a slice of luck, drawing lots with two other candidates after they finished tied for votes. His subsequent election to LegCo to represent the social welfare functional constituency was, to his relief, more straightforward.
Often the lone voice of dissent regarding government policies, our friend Chi-yuen is frequently asked for his views and chooses his words carefully. A constant campaigner for the marginalised, most recently he has been vocal about the proposed revamp of District Councils. These municipal-level bodies, we are told, will be composed solely of – yes, you’ve guessed it – “patriots” and only one third of the seats will be chosen by the public. The rest will be appointees. Highlighting the suggested requirement for councillors to complete jobs assigned by the government, including promoting policies to residents, or face disciplinary action, he asks: “I wonder if the councillors will still serve and represent the public, or will they just become cheerleaders for the government?”
This time, at least, Tik Chi-yuen has an ally in Paul Zimmerman, Vice-Chair of Southern District Council, who says the government’s blueprint will “destroy the final bastion of democracy” here and result in “a loss for everyone”. He has vowed not to stand again. Paul and I go back many years. Our firm helped his sustainability non-profit organisation, Designing Hong Kong, in a legal matter concerning harbourfront access that ended in a landmark judgment from the Court of Final Appeal in 2018. Later, he was one of my first guests on our Law & More podcast. Whether elected or appointed, District Councils need individuals with his energy and passion.
If Paul and Co are getting hot under the collar, spare a thought for our outdoor workers – typically those in the construction industry – as we approach summer. In another contentious measure, the government is implementing a three-tier warning system from next Monday that will allow workers to cease operations when temperatures soar. It aims to protect employees from heatstroke, but employers say the system is confusing and impractical while unionists are unhappy the measures are not mandatory. Deputy Commissioner for Labour Vincent Fung insists the guidelines serve as “clear references” for both sides and he hopes they can “reach a consensus”. Good luck with that.
Perhaps they can take inspiration from the rapprochement on show during Trade Minister Dominic Johnson’s visit here, the first by a senior British official in five years. While meeting economic leaders and stressing the UK’s willingness to engage with Hong Kong, he reiterates his country will not “duck” its historical responsibilities to Hong Kong citizens. Our Chief Executive John Lee prefers to focus on economic relations: “For the sake of real development and people’s well-being, I hope everyone can be practical.”
Hong Kong could certainly use some friendly trade partners as it emerges from the pandemic. In his budget speech three months ago, Financial Secretary Paul Chan revealed the government expects to record a deficit of HK$140 billion in 2022-23, more than double its HK$56 billion initial estimate. He unveiled a package of measures, including reducing total spending by 6%, designed to get us back on track. The budget duly sailed through the “patriots-only” legislature when it was finally put up for voting last week. Only one lawmaker, unhappy that recurrent welfare expenses have been cut by 1%, abstained, the LegCo chamber echoing to his indignant demand for answers.
That was Tik Chi-yuen, my friends, champion of the underclass. A disappearing species at home in his natural habitat.
Until next time, everybody!
Boase Cohen & Collins