The Chief Secretary of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region used to be a person of some consequence: a framer and explainer of government policy, a senior voice in the Legislative Council (LegCo), an international defender and explainer of Hong Kong’s point of view.

John Lee. Photo: LegCo Screenshot.

Well, we were warned that the office would face some changes with the appointment of John Lee Ka-chiu, whose only relevant experience was as a dogged defender of brutal policing. Mr Lee, said Chief Executive Carrie Lam, would concentrate on national security matters, leaving such trivia as housing and the economy to her.

The trouble with this arrangement is that the voice of our red brothers over the border is rather loud in security matters, so it is not clear that there will be very much for Mr Lee to do. After all we have to justify a six-figure salary, plus a full soup-to-nuts set of fringe benefits – the chauffeur-driven car, the Peak residence, the personal office toilet; you name it, he gets it.

Some enlightenment on the labours of Mr Lee was provided last week when he gave press interviews about what seems to be his main function, which is chairing the vetting committee which will decide whether any eager participant in Hong Kong politics is patriotic enough to be allowed into the game.

The committee – there are six other people on it – will apparently sort potential candidates for office into two lists: the sheep who have displayed “patriotic behaviour,” such as “safeguarding national security interests and upholding the country’s exercise of governance over Hong Kong.” 

John Lee. Photo: GovHK.

Patriots will also, he said, have to “support and defend the country’s system and constitutional order, as well as maintain Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity as well as respect one’s own nation.” This seems a very long-winded way of saying that active support of one-party rule is a must.

Then we come to the second list, of the goats who will not be allowed to run for anything. Here Mr Lee was less clear. It will include those who “do the opposite” of the sheep list. Examples offered are advocating independence, insulting the flags and anthem, or seeking foreign sanctions on Hong Kong. But these are already crimes, so it seems unlikely that any candidate will emerge with them in his or her background.

Then we are offered “If that person had done something to damage national security, of course, he or she is not a patriot.” But national security is a notoriously flexible concept these days.

The vetting will be thorough. The committee will look into the person’s past, including what the candidate said and the person’s views. “This includes the content of interviews and who you associate with,” said Mr Lee. He then added, rather implausibly, that the committee would not rule out a candidate just because he criticises or holds opposite opinions from the government.

So you are free to hold opinions different from those of the government…. Really? On topics like the merits of national security legislation, or Taiwan, Tibet, Tiananmen, the Xinjiang Gulag? Does Mr Lee believe this? Do you?

Well, the sheep list will be gazetted, and the goats will, he said “know why they failed.” Interesting to see how that works out.

Photo: Inmediahk.net via CC 2.0.

Mr Lee believes that this new system will ensure that “all obstacles to administration are cleared,” a heartwarming thought. The government will then “work on social, housing and livelihood issues after the obstacles are gone.” This suggests a rather naive and simplistic view of Hong Kong politics. After all, we have been waiting for 20 years for the promised swoop on social, housing and livelihood issues, and it is hardly plausible that the reason for the absence of progress was the “obstacles” provided by an opposition minority in Legco.

Anyway there we have Mr Lee’s new job, and it looks a bit trivial. After all there is no need for a fine-tooth comb to go through the candidates for the election committee. Two fifths of the committee will be appointed by the Hong Kong and Central governments, which can I suppose be trusted to know a “patriot” when they see one. Most of the others will be filled by small groups who are on the mainland in spirit, or in some cases literally.

The idea that we need a high-powered committee chaired by the government number two to ensure that no dissident black sheep slips into this huge flock of white woolies is preposterous. An office boy would suffice.

After all, it is easy enough to see how this is going to work. Into the outer darkness goes anyone who has ever said or written “A high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong, constitutional amendment for our time,” or some snappier version of it. Also fatal to your political ambitions will be “five demands, not one less” or “end one-party rule.”

Pan-dems or members of more frisky parties in the same vein need not apply. Same goes for anyone who has “associated” with Apple Daily, the Professional Teachers Union, any student union, and to be on the safe side, any speech therapist. 

Photo: GovHK.

From a human rights point of view this is all rather ominous. The committee is apparently going to look not just at your recent attitudes and activities but at anything it can find, however old or out of date it may be. And since the requirements for sheep are rather detailed and positive, the default decision is going to be rejection.

You can appeal. The appeal must be lodged within a week of the notice in the Gazette and it goes to a magistrate. Whether you actually get a hearing or the magistrate just reviews the paperwork is not stated. Good luck.


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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.