The Legco Show

I may be far from Hong Kong, but Hong Kong is, literally, in my face. From my New York exile I can instantly beam myself into that strange and wonderful universe where Trotskyites in pig-masks joust with Beijing-worshipping schoolmarms, and where convicted felons with bad comb-overs spout vitriol at matronly Buddhist tree-huggers.
    Welcome to Hong Kong’s very own Reality TV: RTHK’s live broadcast feed of the Legislative Council.
     Many of my New York friends are addicted to CSI Miami or 24. But I’ve got a guiltier pleasure: the weekly installments of Hong Kong’s half-democratically elected, half (dys) functional constituency legislative body.
    My reporter buddy Francis has covered Legco for years. He thinks I’m nuts to rouse myself out of bed in New York at 5am on a Wednesday morning to check in on something that my wiser colleagues use to put themselves to sleep. (Francis has a great Legco story about the time one representative stood up in the chamber and cluelessly read his ghost-written snooze-a-rama of a speech word for word. Including all the stage directions that his eager assistant had stuck between brackets in the text: “We support the government’s position! [..pause here dramatically for emphasis]….”)
    But there’s no reasoning with someone who is hooked on Legco.
    Those of you who are hard-core Asian legislature fans probably prefer the more lively activities of Taiwan’s lawmakers, who routinely jump on desks, break into fistfights, scratch and pull hair, and smuggle armaments into the chamber to express their views. No such hijinks for Hong Kong’s gentlemanly (well, gentlewomanly, too…11 out of 40 members, to be exact) legislature! Tuning into Legco is more like watching Cheesevision, with sound.
     Once or twice a year, the Legco cheddar ripens to sharpness. In December 2005 there was a nail-biter of a session in which Hong Kong’s pan-Democrats managed to squeak together enough votes to turn back a limp “political reform” bill the government was desperate to pass. The suspense lasted for days as HK Chief Executive Donald Tsang and his minions leaned with all their might on each pro-democracy legislator, flattering, cajoling, promising anything to try to convince the lawmaker to “make a U-Turn”. The Hong Kong Chinese language press played the whole thing like a violin. Every day brought new front-page speculations–with charts and graphs–on which democrat would cave in to the pressure.
    The papers agreed that Legco’s most vulnerable pro-democrat was the soft-hearted, homely middle-aged woman who represents Hong Kong’s accountants, Mandy Tam. Not only was she a rookie at politics, but what’s more, at election time, she’d just about squeeked to victory–a lot of accountants opposed her pro-democracy position. At the eleventh hour, the night before the final vote, Tam received a phone call beckoning her to the inner sanctum. She went to see the CE, they spoke. And then she headed back to Legco and voted– against the government.
    Why? Apparently Donald had been so mouh laih mauh he didn’t even offer Mandy a cup of tea at their meeting. (Meanwhile, Legco’s pro-democracy diva, glam barrister Audrey Eu, reportedly had dazzled Mandy by sending her a personal note, and a dozen roses.)
    Last summer, Legco fans like me got a treat beyond our wildest dreams–a 57 and a half hour marathon legislative session. Leung Kwok Hung, “Long Hair” had forced a judicial review of the Hong Kong’s government’s covert surveillance laws, and won the decision. This created a huge problem for the Hong Kong government. If Legco didn’t pass a new surveillance law before their summer recess, the HKSAR wouldn’t be able to wiretap any Triad gangsters until Legco resumed in October. So Rita Fan, LEGCO’s schoolmarm–um, President–decided that the body would meet ’round-the-clock until the government got its bill passed.
    It was August. I watched from New York, on my computer, as, one by one, Hong Kong’s lawmakers melted into puddles of typhoon-season torpor at their desks. The battle unfolded slowly and was sometimes difficult to follow, but you could feel the intensity even from 8,000 miles away. The HK SAR government was trying to push through discretionary powers and legal definitions that would chip away at human and constitutional rights, not to mention due process of law. It wasn’t quite a “Patriot Act”, but still pretty serious. Especially because everybody in Hong Kong knows their Rule of Law is the last line of defence against the type of “freedom of speech” practiced in Beijing.
    Legco’s pro-democratic representatives, including some of Hong Kong’s top lawyers, like James To and Margaret Ng, insisted on going through every provision of the bill in painstaking detail. They debated fine points of privacy and constitutionality at length. From my listening outpost in New York, I could almost smell the sweat dripping from Representative To’s brow–and hear the sound of grinding teeth from the bench in the rear, where a row of fat-cat pro-government legislators in the Liberal Party impatiently clutched their business class plane tickets to summer vacations in Europe.
    You have to savor these moments of Legco high drama, because they are few and far between. Hong Kong’s Legco isn’t as thrilling as its Taiwanese cousin for a good reason: it has very little power. Under most circumstances Legco can’t initiate legislation, it can only approve or reject what the government proposes. Really, the biggest stick that Legco wields is the power to say “No” (especially to financial requests). But, because of the pro-government bias built into the design of Legco, that No is rarely heard.
    And yet, even during the down times between major political dramas, I find Legco fascinating. I suppose, that over time, you get hooked on the characters, the way you do in any long-running soap opera. I want to see what lime-green Japanese designer concoction Audrey is wearing today, and find out from Choy So Yuk about the latest cruel dismemberment of a banyan tree in Tai Wai. Watching Legco also has a payoff: you get better at reading the undercurrents lurking beneath the surface of its deceptively still waters.
    That’s why, even though I’m watching Legco from a faraway place just now, I can tell you this: there is a big, big shift going on right now in Hong Kong politics.
    It’s been coming on for some months now, ever since the pro-democratic Civic Party put up Alan Leong as a candidate for Chief Executive. The move created a deep fissure in the ranks of the pro-Democracy politicians. The two camps will be familiar to Americans who lived through the political and culture wars of the 1970s. There was the Civic and Democrat party’s: “Let’s work through the system to change it” stance. And in the other corner, the “Let’s stick to our principles” group (mainly Long Hair’s LSD and Frontier’s Emily Lau)who believed there was nothing to be gained, and much to be lost, by playing along with the devil’s charade of a rigged election.
    What happened during this winter’s election is that the pro-democrats ended up looking a lot like their American cousins–as democrats tend to do, they made t
heir family squabble a big public thing. Right near the end of the campaign, in a well-publicized dust-up, some League of Social Democrats members grabbed the mike away from some Alan Leong supporters at a rally. Cut to melee, rush it to the evening news.  Of course the newspapers and pundits loved it, and have been blathering on about the “death of the democracy movement” ever since.
    As any serious watcher of “The Legco Show” can tell you, the pundits and press are wrong.
    There’s this old song that Beijing, the Hong Kong government, and Hong Kong’s tycoons love to play. It is called “Hong Kong people can/should forget about democracy and just concentrate on economic prosperity.” It gets repeated so often that you could almost talk yourself into agreeing with the conventional wisdom that Hong Kong’s recent economic boomlet has caused the masses to forget about things like rights, voting, and freedom of speech. That the democracy movement is old hat, and splintering for lack of support.
But what’s going on is really quite different.
    First of all, the pro-democrats are, and have always been, a bunch of strange bedfellows united by a single issue. There have always been cracks, economic fissures, in
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy alliance. (Just as there are strange
bedfellows, indeed, among the pro-Beijing camp). Strip away the
eloquent philosophy, and what does a wealthy guy like London-educated Democratic party barrister
Martin Lee have in common with a humble schoolteacher activist like democracy’s great uncle Szeto Wah
Fear of Beijing has been enough to cement the pro-Democrats together
for a decade, as solidly as Tito held Yugoslavia.
    And now it is not. The pro-democrats aren’t squabbling over democracy, but class interests. The grassroots democrats are pulling away from the stock-portfolio owning upper-middle-class lawyers and professional democrats.

Ten years after the 1997 handover, Hong Kong’s battle lines are changing. The people, and the politicians of Hong Kong have begun to focus less on Beijing, and more on the enemy within–the collusion between home-grown tycoons and a government that exercises almost unlimited control over the city’s wealth and development. (The way this system works to choke Hong Kong’s economic growth and initiative is very ably explained by Alice Poon in her great book, and by my buddy Hemlock, in his.)
   Hong Kong people have figured out that universal suffrage is meaningless if Li Ka Shing and his family are still getting sweetheart land deals from the HKSAR. That the control freaks in Hong Kong’s own government and civil service can be as oppressive and unconcerned with the public’s rights as any Beijing bureaucrat. That you can’t fight for democracy on a single front.
    And so the political game is shifting, re-configuring around new issues. For instance the environment, and heritage–issues that
turn the abstract concept of democracy into something very concrete. As concrete as the four lane highway and gratuitous shopping mall which, if completed according to government plan, will obliterate downtown Hong Kong’s waterfront and historic Queen’s Pier.
    The fight for universal suffrage is no longer taking place in a bubble but in a real Hong Kong, where the right to vote for your government isn’t a defense against the excesses of Beijing, but against a clearer and more present danger. That’s the difference between 1997 and 2007 in Hong Kong.
    Lately there’s been a lot of activity and new alliances. New pro-democracy grassroots political parties, like the LSD, are cozying with the usually pro-Beijing unionists in the FTU on issues like the minimum wage, while trying to chip away at the DAB’s working-class base in the housing estates. Speaking of DAB, that knee-jerk pro-Beijing party is going all upscale these days, recruiting young professionals in an attempt to grab the votes of the middle class. (Meanwhile, DAB’s resident green Buddhist, Choy So Yuk, has lately been peeling away to join the pro-dem Civic Party members when votes come up about air quality and the environment.)
     The situation is in flux, and packed with surprises. And there’s more! District council elections are just around the corner, followed by Legco elections in 2008. Who knows, Legco may actually start giving the Taiwan legislature some competition in the ratings. So tune in. Your ticket to Hong Kong’s best free live entertainment is just a click away. (And, it’s great Cantonese listening comprehension practice, too! However, if you don’t understand the wah, then tune in to the audio feed from the English simulcast translation.) 


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