Government to play hardball in Article 23 battle

An air of belligerence struck Hong Kong with the kick-off of the drafting of a law on Basic Law Article 23 drawing near while the people were preparing to celebrate the Year of the Dragon. That could not be more intriguing.

Speaking at the first question-cum-interaction time at the Legislative Council this year on Thursday last week, Chief Executive John Lee was in a fighting mood as he made an early start of good-mouthing the Article 23 legislation even before the legislative process began.

Hit back at Paul Tse

He hit back at Paul Tse, a long-time pro-establishment legislator, who criticised the “high-pressure and high-profile” law enforcement actions in the city. With public discontent simmering due to a litany of wrong policies and bad law enforcement, Tse warned the public would not be in the mood of participating in events that were aimed at enlivening the economy.

In his response, Lee said the language used by the lawmaker reminded him of that used during the 2019 protests and unrest such as “black violence” and “soft resistance” and “reactionary forces.”

Lee’s rebuttal has raised some eyebrows not so much because of the sharp words he used, but who his target was and where he fired the salvo.

With the Article 23 battle soon to start, the broadside against Tse has sent a clear message, if not warning, to those in both the “love-China camp” and the democrats, for them not to overestimate the authorities’ tolerance of dissenting voices.

Lee’s rebuke of Tse’s remarks does not seem to be a scripted episode.

The refute team

But the Chief Executive’s announcement of the setting up of a “response and refute team” to counter propaganda by hostile forces against the proposed legislation is not. It is aimed to send a clear and strong message to critics of the government propaganda strategy. The keyword is “refute”.

Although government officials have stressed the importance of giving full explanation on Article 23 legislation during the legislative process to the local and international community, the setting up of the “rebuttal team” has shown clearly the government’s ballgame in the Article 23 battle.

Obsessed with such conspiracy theories as “colour revolution” and the Western bloc’s “encirclement” of China, hardliners in the authorities have held out no hopes of convincing sceptics and critics of the justifications of a law on Article 23 through persuasion and explanation.

Judging from the way Lee refuted Tse’s criticism against the governing team’s style of governance, it looks certain that there will be more fireworks during the legislative process and after its passage into law.

Given the Government’s low, or any, expectation of the effectiveness of persuasion and lobbying, it is therefore not surprising that they are apparently intended to finish the legislative task before the current legislative session ends in July.

To keep the process as short as possible to minimise controversies, the idea of publishing a white bill for a full and more detailed consultation now looks dead.

The Bar Association Chairman’s advice

Insisting that threats against national security are “real” and “exist every day”, Lee is bent on bulldozing the Article 23 bill. By putting an end to the protracted row over Article 23 legislation, he argues Hong Kong could focus on economic and livelihood issues.

It may be an overly simplistic view, verging on wishful thinking. With local and international confidence in “one country, two systems” seriously dented by the Hong Kong national security law, Article 23 risks further damaging the city’s image and freedoms.

Speaking at the opening of the legal year on Monday, Bar Association Chairman Victor Dawes said: “To truly serve and protect Hong Kong and its people, the new legislation will have to be clear and precise.

“The consultation process will have to be transparent and thorough in order to refute any suggestion that our government is not prepared to listen.”

He added that there would “likely be attacks” arguing that Hong Kong was “no longer a free city and the rule of law is dead.” “Whilst some of those remarks may not be bona fide, many people do have genuine concerns,” Dawes said.

Given three days before Lee spoke, Dawes’ gentle reminders to the authorities seem to be too late to prompt a government rethink of its game plan.

▌[At Large] About the Author

Chris Yeung is a veteran journalist, a founder and chief writer of the now-disbanded CitizenNews; he now runs a daily news commentary channel on Youtube. He had formerly worked with the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Economic Journal.