Lunar New Year stall row only boosts critics of Hong Kong’s rule of law

References to the “rule of law” have snowballed in recent weeks as Hong Kong officials have sought to relaunch the economy and find new opportunities for growth in the aftermath of the damage from the Covid-19 pandemic.

At a conference organised last month to highlight relations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Greater Bay Area, Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu emphasised how this aspect of Hong Kong’s business environment would greatly facilitate our role as a superconnector between the two.
At the first meeting of a financial forum a week later under the theme “Hong Kong as a Global City: the Competitive Edge”, Lee extended the scope of the role to the whole of the world, including the entire mainland. At the same event, director of the central government’s liaison office, Zheng Yanxiong, said the superior business environment and comprehensive legal framework would continuously add robust momentum to Hong Kong’s development.
Both men were echoing similar remarks by Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po following his visits to Europe in September and California as representative of Hong Kong at the Apec meeting in October. Chan said financial and business leaders from the UK and France expressed confidence in Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” principle, common law and rule of law.
During the German leg of his tour, which included meeting European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde, Chan emphasised one country, two systems, the use of common law and the rule of law as key features of the business environment. It was a similar story with Chan’s meetings with US business leaders.
Everyone wants to know whether the formula still applies in Hong Kong and if the rule of law endures. If required, Chan could point to President Xi Jinping’s speech during his July visit to Hong Kong last year, which emphasised that the differences between our city and mainland cities are what make us so useful for the country’s overall development, meaning these differences will be preserved on a long-term basis. Xi twice specifically mentioned the continued use of common law.
None of this is new, of course. After the establishment of InvestHK in July 2000, I spent eight years criss-crossing the globe to spell out the four features that made Hong Kong China’s natural international financial centre: free movement of capital; private ownership of the banking system so the government could focus on orderly regulation; free flow of information; and a common-law legal system administered by an independent judiciary. The last one is the most important as it applies to all business sectors.

The rule of law is a general term which embraces an open system, an independent judiciary, a level playing field, transparency, speedy trials and a requirement that the administration exercises its powers fairly.

The other person to mention the rule of law recently was Emily Lau Wai-hing, former head of the Democratic Party. Lau was guest speaker at a lunch organised by Path of Democracy, a local think tank headed by executive councillor Ronny Tong Ka-wah. Lau said she was often asked by foreign business executives whether the one country two systems formula still applied, which she took as code for whether the rule of law still prevailed.
Former head of the Democratic Party Emily Lau speaks at a panel on Hong Kong’s national security law at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Central on July 25. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
The Democratic Party is the odd one out among those affiliated with the pan-democratic camp. For one thing, the party’s constitution has a clause which mirrors Article 1 of the Basic Law, ruling out any question of independence as it accepts that the city is an inalienable part of China.
The party believes any political change should be orderly and achieved without violence, and is a firm supporter of the rule of law. Some members did take part in the high-profile 2019 primary exercise to select candidates for the upcoming Legislative Council election. But, unlike some other participants, they did not sign the online declaration titled “Resolute Resistance, Inked Without Regret”.
This brings us to the annual Lunar New Year fair where allocation of market stalls is by public auction, the winner being the individual or organisation that offers the most money. Two members of the Democratic Party bid for two stalls, in their own names, not on behalf of the organisation.

Each was the highest bidder, but neither was permitted to sign the contract. No reason was offered; rather, attention was drawn to a clause in the auction procedure document which allowed the government not to award the stall to any successful bidder. This is unsettling. It suggests there are some circumstances where the playing field is not level, and there is no need for the government to be transparent.

Hong Kong rejects Democratic Party bid for Lunar New Year stall ‘without reason’

Some might argue this is a trivial matter. Who cares who secures the right to sell flowers or knick-knacks at a local fair? Perhaps those making the decision were proceeding out of an abundance of caution.

But they need to know that news of such instances travels around the world and inevitably comes to the attention of potential investors in Hong Kong. Do you think they might raise a small doubt about our adherence to the rule of law? At the very least, it makes us look petty, and big people do not do small things.
Some in Hong Kong are concerned about “ soft resistance”. Some overseas are more concerned with soft oppression. There are those who look for reasons to attack our city as part of their efforts to oppose China. Why do we insist on giving them ammunition?

Mike Rowse is an independent commentator


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