In an exclusive interview with Technical Politics, the Hon. Alvin Yeung discussed the implications of Beijing’s new security law for the future of Hong Kong, while detailing for us his party’s plans to address the City’s inequality crisis and to secure universal suffrage for all elected officials to the Legislative Council and Executive.
Having begun his career as a lawyer, Mr. Yeung first became involved in Hong Kong politics when he joined the pro-democracy 7.1 People People Pile organisation following protests he witnessed in 2003. He traded his Canadian passport in 2012 for the opportunity to run in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections for the Civic Party. Though he lost his 2012 campaign, he secured a seat on the Legislative Council when he won a by-election in his New Territories East Constituency in 2016. Later that year, he also became leader of the Civic Party when his predecessor, Alan Leong, retired from his seat on the Legislative Council.
Since then, Mr. Yeung has established himself as an advocate of democratic pluralism and equality of opportunity. Many in his city see him as an emblem of the optimism embodied in the values promised to Hong Kong by the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
Beijing’s encroaching grip on the City is expected to tighten after the National People’s Congress ruled 2,878-to-1 in favour of drafting a new national security bill. However, Chinese officials are finding other routes to undermine civil liberties in the City. A recent bill passed by Hong Kong’s own Legislative Council has outlawed the mocking of the Chinese national anthem. The legislation coincided with the Tiananmen Square Massacre anniversary, which saw protesters rebel against social distancing laws and gather in Victoria Park to remember those who died fighting for free and fair Chinese elections. The Government claimed it banned the vigil due to the risk of the virus spreading, an argument by which pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong are not convinced.
In the interview, Mr. Yeung told us first of all about his journey into politics, and his vision for the future of Hong Kong.
I am a lawyer by profession who got into politics via a by-election in 2016. I find it a privilege to serve as a legislator here. As for the vision, I wish to see a free and democratic Hong Kong, which, of course, is getting more challenging nowadays.
Secession, subversion and foreign policy interference could all be outlawed under new legislation promulgated by the Standing Committee at the National People’s Congress, on 22 May 2020. Once drafted, the bill could see acts of protest designated as terrorism, resulting in harsher sentences for those opposed to the CCP. Secret police and state-run courts could become the new normal. Mr. Yeung provided his reaction to the proposed legislation.
To many of us here it came as a shock; nobody knew it was coming. The Chinese Government probably saw signs that Hong Kong was getting out of control and decided to release the bill. Beijing probably saw an opportunity too when the rest of the world was preoccupied with managing the Coronavirus.
Procedurally, the legislation undercuts the Hong Kong Legislature. National security is supposed to be considered a domestic issue in Hong Kong. It is seen as an autonomous issue from China. Besides foreign affairs and national defence, Hong Kong should have its own say in all other issues other than these two. This is stated so clearly in the Basic Law.
The Hong Kong Government had one attempt before in 2003 to push similar legislation, but this failed as the Hong Kong people could not trust it. Currently, Beijing thinks it has the license to do whatever it wants. They believe it is okay to undercut one country, two systems and ignore our constitution.
Under Annex III of the Basic Law, China may add articles dealing on security to the Hong Kong Constitution, an action which would undermine the one country, two systems foundation of the City’s civic constitution, promised by the Sino-British Treaty of 1984. We asked Mr. Yeung what he perceived as the best outcome for one country, two systems.
The ideal reality for the one country, two systems framework would be Beijing respecting Hong Kong’s autonomy with their own domestic issues, as stated in the Basic Law. We should have a chance to elect our own Executive and full Legislature.
As an international financial city, we should be able to enjoy a high degree of freedom as promised to us. Freedom of press, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech you name it. But Beijing is turning a blind eye to all these guarantees our constitution gave us.
Hong Kong is not an ordinary city of China; it is a free city and has always been a free city.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced, in late-May 2020, that he would extend the amount of time British National Overseas passport holders could remain in the UK by an additional six months. In making the announcement, Mr. Raab stressed that this would give BNO passport holders in Hong Kong a pathway to British citizenship. As many as 300,000 Hong Kong residents would be able to take immediate advantage of such a measure with a further 2.5 million Hongkongers fitting the criteria to apply for the passport.
Britain is a joint signatory on the Sino-British Treaty. This is an international treaty so we expect them to hold Beijing accountable to the rest of the international stage. It is a contractional duty for Britain to accuse Chinese officials of breaching this clause and that clause. The UK has a stake here too and they should speak up.
We understand every country and government have their own concerns but Hong Kong has always been a close partner to the British. We expect the British Government would dare and have the guts to look into the eyes of Beijing and say something that the officials there may not be willing to listen to.
In its response to the legislation, Washington seems to be taking a harder line against Beijing than London. If the United States were to withdraw the special trading status it provides to Hong Kong, the City would be subject to the same tariffs on goods and services that the US places on the rest of China. With 300 American financial institutions, 85,000 US residents, and $67 billion dollars traded each year between the two jurisdictions, Hong Kong’s ties with the US mean both America and China stand to lose significant capital if President Trump follows through on his pledge.
Mr. Yeung discussed the implications of the Trump Administration’s announcement of the gradual erasing of America’s preferential treatment to Hong Kong in the event of the bill passing.
In 1992, the US established the Hong Kong Policy Act on the premise that after the 1997 handover, trade with Hong Kong would be treated uniquely compared to the rest of China.
So now, the Trump Administration wants to revoke this gift. Well, before anything we have to ask: why did they have to do it? Of course, the US election is coming but if another country is removing its special status with Hong Kong we have to know if we, the Hong Kong people, have done anything wrong?
However, Trump is not removing the special status by tomorrow. There is still time and if Beijing truly treasured Hong Kong, as the only international financial hub in China, then they should do something to prevent this backlash to the bill.
Contrastingly, Taiwan has been proactive in its offers of support to Hong Kong. Mr. Yeung commented on President Tsai’s offer of employment and residency to the Hong Kong people.
Both the Taiwanese support and BNO extension from the UK are supporting messages to those who are underground here in Hong Kong. A lot of people are not willing to leave but at least we know we are not alone. We understand that support is coming in from around the world. This is reassuring and means a lot to us here.
A core aim of the Civic Party’s agenda lies in minimising social inequalities found in Hong Kong. Mr. Yeung gave us his opinion on what policies would best level the City’s socioeconomic playing field.
At the end of the day, if there is no proper representation in the Legislature or the Government itself then it is very difficult to solve issues relating to social inequality. The Government is dominated either by large corporations or puppets from Beijing. They are not there to address societal problems, just as much as they are not there to say no to Beijing.
We need our voices to be listened to and if the Legislature itself is not elected, at least not fully elected by the people, how would you expect it to function correctly and make people’s voices heard?
Of course, more importantly is the Executive Branch itself. It is unimaginable to think in our metropolitan, financial hub of a city, our head of Government was elected by 777 people. I mean that is it! It is unbelievable.
In 2019, the riots saw house prices plummet in Hong Kong by 25%. Further protests, coupled with COVID-19, saw the City’s GDP decrease by almost 9% in its first quarter of 2020. We were interested to know whether Mr. Yeung believed the riots were contributing to heightening wealth inequalities across the City.
The protests, in general, did affect our economy and business world but to a certain extent. When certain areas were having a protest, other areas were still normal so people could swallow the riots.
I would say you can resolve social unrest by really putting forward some sort of reforms and admitting to your poor governance. There were solutions to that and you could have resolved it in a very short period of time.
People were still able to do business and make money before the pandemic, but when the virus came it hit basically everybody. It has had a universal effect on business for both rich and poor. Hong Kong’s economy is globally connected so when the rest of the world does not also perform well, we suffer too.
However, when Coronavirus hit Hong Kong, its residents were highly efficient at preventing the spread of the disease. The City has recorded just 1,107 cases and only four deaths.
Unlike the rest of the world, Hong Kong learnt a very, very hard lesson from SARS in 2003. We had almost 300 people die, many of whom were medical officers, doctors and nurses. Consequently, when rumours of COVID-19 began to circulate around the city, the Hong Kong people knew something was wrong and did not obey the Government.
Everybody got themselves a mask when the Chief Executive told her Cabinet to take their masks off earlier in the year. We unfortunately understand that when the Government says something, we should not believe it. You just do it your own way: clean your hands and put on your mask.
Members of Generation Z will have to carry the economic burdens of the pandemic for the rest of their lives, regardless of what country they belong to. However, young people in Hong Kong may be additionally lumbered with further hardship if the security legislation is put into place.
House prices may have seen a recent tumble, but Hong Kong still retains the title as the most expensive city to live in the entire world. America’s threat to revoke Hong Kong’s ‘special status’ may worsen the career prospects of graduating students. In response, the Civic Party has various proposals to help young people gain access to opportunities such as affordable housing and jobs in the future.
Everybody knows that Hong Kong is one of the most expensive places on earth to have your own flat. Ordinary people cannot afford to live here. In response to this, we have been urging the Government to build more public housing. There are a lot of industrial sites in Hong Kong that go unused. We call them ‘brownfields’. The land is owned by the Government but they are leased out to companies. However, more and more of these spaces are not actually being utilised.
You have to prioritise when it comes to governance. If the top priority is housing, then you have to make sure that the brownfields are being well used, not wasted on something of less importance.
More critically though, I want there to be fair and equal September elections for young people and everyone else in the City. With this Government, we do not know if their masters in Beijing will try to influence the result of the election. In fact, we have seen many cases before that this Government will disqualify candidates, even if they have already just been elected.
This is not a level playing field. Before we talk about all the other policy issues, which are also very important, we want this upcoming election to remain as open and transparent as possible. This is a more urgent matter.
Finally, we asked Mr. Yeung how optimistic he was about keeping his seat in September’s Legislative Council elections.
As a part of the democratic opposition, we are all working very hard to make sure people will cast their votes. There is a chance that the opposition can become the majority come September, provided that the Government does not disqualify candidates.
But again, this is not something we can control.
With all of this, Hong Kong people are not asking for the moon. We are simply asking for what is promised to us under the Basic Law. I can see a lot of people hold their spirits high. They are not going to give up, at least not so easily. This is an uphill battle but you can see over the last year people in Hong Kong, especially the younger ones, are determined to be free from Beijing.
People in this City will continue to fight.
Emily Wilson is an independent writer and freelance political analyst. She is hoping to start a degree in Politics and International Relations in September.