24 eggs against a high wall|Martin Lee

Published (HKT): 2020.08.20 10:16

Following the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s decision to extend the current term of the Legislative Council (LegCo) by a year, whether the 24 pro-democracy lawmakers at the legislature should stay on or resign en masse has become the most controversial topic of late.

I have asked myself what I would do if I were one of the 24. First and foremost, from a personal point of view I would not want to seek re-election. For legislators, life at LegCo in the past four years has been tougher than any other time. For the pro-democracy camp, being the “eternal minority” at LegCo, there is not much room left for them to engage in political discussions, and yet the demands of our supporters are very different today, so much so that I imagine it is very difficult to fulfil them. In the past, the majority of our supporters were the so-called “peaceful, rational, non-violent” type. Today, however, more and more pro-democracy supporters believe that radical actions should be taken inside and outside LegCo. That is the way to win their applause. But several pro-democracy lawmakers have already been prosecuted following clashes with our “vulnerable” police or LegCo security guards. Meanwhile, with the enactment of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, any radical move made by the pro-democracy camp will only invite more serious threats and come with a bigger price. Throughout my 22 years as a legislator, I had never been expelled from LegCo by the chairman. I am aware of the predicament facing legislators today, but still if I were one of the 24 pro-democracy lawmakers, I would not go for the “brave fighter’s” way. Because of that, I would get jilted by young voters and come under widespread criticism. Public opinion polls would probably indicate little public support for me to stay on at LegCo. Nevertheless, my conscience would not allow me to quit. I would stay put and take up the challenge with other fellow pro-democracy legislators. I would head to the mountain even though I know there are tigers up there.

Resistance from within

The reasons cited by some people who call for the lawmakers to quit en masse are debatable. They argue that all but one lawmaker should resign and that person should represent the pro-democracy camp to challenge the government with questions and press for specific information from the authorities. There is a certain measure of political wisdom here. But then those advocating the idea ignore the impracticality of the pro-democracy camp keeping just one seat at LegCo - that legislator would have to speak on behalf of the camp on every single issue and would surely become a subject of criticism. Even if the legislator does not act rashly in any way, the royalist camp could easily seize on his or her words or actions and claim that the lone lawmaker does not sincerely abide by his or her oath of allegiance to the Hong Kong SAR and to comply with the Basic Law. They might pass a motion to condemn the legislator and disqualify him or her. Besides, under the menacing National Security Law, a small number of pro-democracy lawmakers might be extradited to mainland China. In that case, the pro-democracy camp would lose their veto power that requires a one-third vote. Therefore, out of the 24, we cannot do without any one of them.

Some people argue that because some of the 24 pro-democracy LegCo members lost in the primaries held recently by the pro-democracy camp, they in effect do not have voters’ authorization to stay on at the LegCo, given that the current term of all LegCo members is four years. But in practice, the lawmakers who lost at the primaries cannot possibly step down and pass their seats to winners at the primaries. Are we saying vacating LegCo seats is the way to gain voters’ authorization? Actually, since the government postponed the LegCo election, it is not only the term of LegCo members but also voters’ authorization that has been extended. People who voted for the pro-democracy legislators surely would not want them to quit.

It is also said that the lawmakers’ resigning en masse can cause greater repercussions in the international community. In light of my exchanges with the international community over the years, when foreign governments manage their relations with China, they take into account various factors. But collective resignation by LegCo members of the pro-democracy camp is not a reason motivating them to ratchet up pressure on China. Rather, foreign government officials and politicians may be baffled by the lawmakers’ action. In democratic countries, if the opposition faces the same situation that the 24 Hong Kong legislators are facing, they will do their utmost to safeguard their parliamentary seats, hoping that by staying on, they can turn the tables in the next election. In fact, resigning en masse may even backfire. The international community may ask themselves: since these pro-democracy lawmakers voluntarily give up their seats, why should we stand with Hong Kong people and offend the Chinese Communist Party?

When the pro-democracy camp splits, our political opponents are pleased. As it stands, the 24 LegCo members are like 24 eggs facing a high wall. Stepping down is not an option for them. I salute them. God bless them!

(Martin Lee is a barrister and founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party.)

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