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Decorum in tatters, the new norm in Hong Kong

This is translated from CitizenNews' weekly digest tracking Hong Kong's political news over the past week. (一周政情:官場亂象叢生 香港禮崩樂壞

In the past week, the most prominent political news was the Legislative Council's passage of the Third Reading of the Immigration Ordinance amendment bill, empowering the Director of Immigration to require a conveyance to prohibit the carriage of individual passengers. While the government said the subsidiary legislation to be tabled later would only apply to inbound flights, the primary legislation allows the government to exercise powers over outbound flights, which the Bar Association believes can be used to restrict Hong Kong residents from leaving the territory. In addition, the Director of Immigration has deviated from the norm by publicly bombarding the audit report, and the Chief Executive has used the time slot of RTHK's programme to interview dozens of Election Committee members in person, blatantly building up momentum for her re-election bid. These once unimaginable official misdemeanours are now commonplace. The decorum in tatters has become the new norm in Hong Kong.

The rationale behind the bill introduced by the Security Bureau to amend the Immigration Ordinance is to fulfil the international obligation under the Convention on International Civil Aviation to improve the screening process for non-refoulement claims, so as to empower the Government to require carriers to provide passenger information and to prohibit carriers from carrying individual passengers. Under the Convention, the international civil aviation industry is required to implement advance passenger information, and airlines are required to provide advance passenger information to the immigration authorities at the destination before the flight takes off. The immigration authorities may notify the airline to refuse a passenger from travelling on a flight for the purpose of combating terrorists or preventing serious crime, save for the need to order the return of the original aircraft on arrival and to deal with the passenger's non-refoulement claim legal proceedings.

If this were the case, there would be no need for the draft legislation to include the power to restrict departure. However, the Government insists that the primary legislation should cover both entry and departure, and refuses to accept the Bar Association's proposal to amend the Bill to include only restrictions on entry. The public cannot help but suspect that the Government's intention is to take advantage of this apparently purely technical immigration amendment to restrict the right of Hong Kong residents to leave Hong Kong by air. In future, all the Government needs to do is to promulgate a piece of subsidiary legislation which will be subject to negative vetting, so that all airlines can be immediately instructed to prohibit the provision of services to passengers on the Government's blacklist. A bill that could restrict the freedom of Hong Kong residents to enter and leave Hong Kong was passed into law quickly at a time when the Legislative Council had become a monopoly of the establishment. The deliberations and objective constraints that should be part of Hong Kong's legislative mechanism have failed completely. This is proof that the governance of the SAR is in tatters. 

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Why does the SAR Government have to obtain the right to restrict Hong Kong residents from leaving the territory? It does not seem to target people who have already violated Hong Kong National Security Law or other criminal laws. If a citizen is suspected of violating these laws, the police can simply arrest him or her and ask the court to prohibit him or her from leaving the territory without permission and confiscate his or her travel documents. It is believed that this is to target those who have not yet broken the law but are already under surveillance, so that the control mechanism can be have a stronger deterrent effect.

It is believed that this is a counter-measure against Western countries that are providing lifeboat schemes to encourage Hong Kong people to emigrate overseas, resulting in a massive brain and capital drain. This counter-measure will be implemented if necessary.

The Director of Audit released a number of audit reports last Wednesday, including a recommendation for the Immigration Department (ImmD) to speed-up the handling of the backlog and strengthen the vetting of bogus marriage investigations, as well as a case in 2012 where the Mainland authorities referred a bogus marriage case but the suspect successfully evaded investigation. In a rare statement issued at 23:50 on the same day, ImmD publicly refuted the audit report, stressing that it was very concerned about the issue of bogus marriages and that each case was unique and could not be generalised. “The Department is deeply dismayed that some people who do not understand criminal investigation have criticised the handling of cases by law enforcement departments, which has seriously damaged the professional image of ImmD.” [Translator’s note: as at 4 May, ImmD has not provided an English official translation of the press release.]

In the past, even if government departments did not agree with the findings of the Audit Report, they would only express their approval of the report in their responses to the Audit Report, and then present their arguments at the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hearings, and seldom make public statements in return. The situation is similar to that in 2019, when the police feel that they are in a higher position of power and the entire SAR Government can only rely on the police force to maintain its governance, so even the lowest ranking police organization can openly issue a letter to bombard the Chief Secretary for Administration, heckling CS’s authority (or the lack of it) to apologise to the public for the police's law enforcement practices. Now that the Immigration Department has joined the national security team and has successfully amended the legislation to expand its powers, allowing it to draw up blacklists of inbound and outbound travellers at will, it naturally does not take the Audit Commission into account and dares to openly blast the Audit Report. In the future, if a watchdog department like the Audit Commission is to monitor the disciplined forces, it may lead to a backlash at any time. It is evident that the governance of the SAR is in tatters.

In addition, after Beijing’s move to rewrite Hong Kong's electoral system, RTHK has been broadcasting a series of “Get to Know EC Subsectors” hosted by Chief Executive Carrie Lam for several days since last Wednesday. In the first two episodes, Mrs Lam basically sold the new electoral system as being "broadly representative", enhancing the effectiveness of the SAR's governance and facilitating the future work of the Greater Bay Area, without mentioning any opposition or doubts, thus reducing RTHK to a “mono channel” official and pro-Beijing propaganda mouthpiece. The Chief Executive's initiative of interviewing the Election Committee members in person this time reflects that the SAR Government has completely ignored the fairness and impartiality of the election mechanism and abandoned the common sense that senior officials should avoid conflicts of interest or roles in governance.

Carrie Lam’s intention to run for re-election is already well known. Executive Council member Ronny Tong, who supports her re-election bid, even caused a furore over it. As Tong cited an English saying “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”, the anti-Carrie camp blasted Ronny Tong out and out. As the incumbent Chief Executive, she has already had a lot of exposure through her official duties, and is objectively far better than her potential rivals. However, she has still not shied away from suspicion, and on the pretext of explaining to the public about Beijing’s changes to the Election Committee system, she has personally visited 40 Election Committee members, brazenly jumping the gun to canvass for votes, and covertly suggesting pork barrels to the interviewed Election Committee members. These unsightly political manoeuvres are a graphic illustration of how senior officials and members of the Election Committee will explore the exchange of interests under the new system where small-circle elections have significantly replaced universal suffrage. This is a clear indication of what the governance of Hong Kong “in tatters” means.

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