Friday, August 18, 2017

Kapok: The letter versus the spirit

A lot has been said already regarding the so-called “clarifications” issued on August 3 by the Electoral Affairs Commission (CAEAL) in relation to the forbidding of so-called “political propaganda” — or “publicity” to use a less controversial wording — prior to the two weeks of official campaigning starting on September 2.

The editor-in-chief of this very newspaper called it “bullshit” right away — no need to excuse his French there. And stupid it is, especially when it goes as far as indicating that starting on August 3, all messages, including electronic postings on social media, that would indicate a preference for a candidate are forbidden until the official launch of the campaign, and moreover that all messages posted prior to that date have to be removed!

This applies to the candidates themselves and their representatives, but also to regular voters; citizens whose “selfies” taken with candidates could be construed as “illegal publicity” if accompanied by “explicit or implicit indication” of voting preference. Nothing was said as to how long back this would apply: back to July 12, when the lists of candidates were made public? Or back to March 13, the very day the Election Day was made public? And then how “public” is truly public on social media platforms: does it apply to postings only visible to friends? Why would Sulu Sou, for example, decide to make his profile totally invisible for a while?

But the points made by the CAEAL are not only contrary to common sense, they indeed contravene several core principles of our glorified Basic Law, especially when it comes to freedom of expression and information, as rightly pointed out by some candidates and legal experts.

In the Chinese newspaper with the biggest circulation in Macao, half a page was dedicated to a particular group of interests in Macao yesterday, with three outgoing legislators — two of them running again — being given ample space to develop their thinking on livelihood issues: is that information or propaganda?

If I write in this column that only a particular group of legislators, based on opinion surveys, is doing a proper job: am I helping shape the opinion of the citizens or just mirroring the state of the public opinion?

And then if I say that the most absent legislators in the 2015-2016 session (the latest available) were Vitor Cheung (he attended only 32 sessions out of 42… almost 25 percent of absenteeism!), Chan Chak Mo (34/42) and Melinda Chan (35/42), am I just stating a fact or implicitly indicating that people should not vote for them?

And then, my vote could go to Melinda Chan — she is a directly elected legislator — but the other two are indirectly elected: I do have a say in Mr Chan’s election, being part of a cultural association that is recognised with the right to vote in functional constituencies, but then Mr Chan is running unopposed, so would my preference make a difference?

Several candidates, especially those who are not yet members of this august assembly, have also pointed out that this so-called clarification had two very detrimental effects.

A more immediate one is putting them at a disadvantage compared to sitting legislators. They, the hope for the future, cannot discuss public policies in relation to the elections whereas established legislators can simply talk about their daily routine, even if this consists mainly of complaining in public and complying when voting for government-sponsored bills comes. But then candidates who are truly active all year long, the ones who head meaningful political associations might not be at such a disadvantage: the ones really suffering are the gimmicky one-time vote stealers!

The most important second detrimental effect is that it prevents people from engaging in public debate and thus focusing more on issues rather than persons. Just like expressing a preference or a commitment should not be considered as campaigning, the interpretation of the CAEAL is simply speaking a treason to the spirit of the electoral law.

Published in Macau Daily Times on August 18, 2017

Friday, July 21, 2017

Kapok: The bickerers

The contrast is quite shocking really: on the one hand, legislators who are either appointed or not even elected, but rather endorsed by corporations and traditional associations according to a method of selection in which one name corresponds to one seat — highly competitive indeed — and on the other hand truly elected members of that very same assembly, who have fought very hard to win their seat, and who will take every opportunity and use any mean to make the best out of this unique and very circumscribed forum of democratic debate to oversee, somehow control and to a certain degree make the whole system slightly accountable to the people of Macao.

And yet, the former are giving the latter lessons in solemnity! Complaining that posters and piles of paper cups with challenging messages directed towards the government are being detrimental to the dignity of this otherwise perfectly independent and reason-inspired body of “small circle” representatives who know only one thing: to vote in favor of whatever the government wants as long as their interests are preserved, even when they don’t actually understand and measure the ultimate consequences of the new laws.

The Land Law is but one example, but what an enlightening one it is! Conservative loyalists and self-serving legislators just realized a few months back that the law they had passed — “solemnly” one should add — in 2013 was actually making land grantees accountable for land they had failed to develop — usually after more than 25 years — and thus was somehow hurting either their own interests or the ones of their clients. They wanted (and still want) the law to be changed, or at least amended, or at the very least interpreted… in their favour of course!

The government they usually follow so blindly is now being deemed responsible for not explaining the ins-and-outs of article 48 — the non-renewal of concessions in case of failure to develop and operate, for being too slow in drafting an urban plan, for not providing the necessary authorizations in due course… in short, for fooling them! How can that be when they are supposedly one and the same? What a sense of betrayal they must have felt when the Chief Executive announced that he “strongly rejected” any amendment of the law! Mutiny was in the air. Article 75 of the Basic Law was being brandished: after all, a bill can be introduced by a legislator or a group of them if it does not relate to “public expenditure, political structure or the operation of the government“! Truly, a matter of rule of law and separation of powers! Montesquieu-inspired for sure. How solemn! How noble!

Luckily for us, the government learnt a lesson in May 2014, when it ended up being challenged by the street over the so-called Perks’ bill. Back then the proposal of law was favouring government officials themselves, and especially a soon-to-be- replaced highly unpopular governmental team widely perceived as both indecisive and incompetent. The mistake had been to trust the very same legislators who are now asking for the land law to be amended: for these people, anything goes and public opinion is of little consequence. Not being returned by universal suffrage, they are convinced that their own ceremonial hold over society through their positions in richly endowed associations can subvert any resistance, no matter how legitimate and prevalent it is.

Let it linger then; let it rot and wait for the right opportunity to change the rules of the game. Greed is acceptable only as long as it does not find echoes in unfairness. Apart for Zheng Anting who appears to be completely out of touch with public sentiment, nobody toys with mutiny claims anymore. The Chief Executive visits the Assembly and boasts about the generosity of the central authorities and his own accomplishments, and all the loyal legislators can do is ask for better-trained civil servants, more facilities for the elderly or free education for all in universities. Why and how? Only the frivolous poster and cardboard holders seem to care.

Published in Macau Daily Times on August 4, 2017

Kapok: The variable geometry of the "one country"

The fact that Macao immigration has been barring some Hong Kong residents from entering the territory of the Macao SAR is widely acknowledged and documented. It is neither a daily occurrence, nor an open secret, but the very fact that it has become duly admitted and vindicated by the Macao authorities, including Secretary for Security Wong Sio Chak, testifies to a worrying trend in which a discretionary power has transformed into an accepted norm and a routine practice.

Suffice it to say that it is “in accordance with the law” for the audience to accept it matter-of-factly as if for a high official to invoke the law and the compliance with that law were good enough to ease all doubts and worries. This is exactly what happened with the rejection of Hong Kong legislator Kwok Ka Ki on July 15th on the grounds that he was a “threat to stability” (威脅穩定). As Mr Kwok is strongly contesting the decision, Secretary Wong has been mildly challenged by (too few) local media and has been arguing that this kind of decision was indeed absolutely in line with existing laws regarding the security of the territory — which ones, no one really knows — and that it was not unique to the SAR but that many other jurisdictions — he reportedly quoted the examples of Portugal and the European Union — have similar legal provisions.

Mr Kwok was well aware that such a practice existed in Macao — and even the other way round as the recent Scott Chiang case proves — and he is now arguing that he never participated in any politically-related activity in the second SAR, merely visiting for holidays as this was the case that day when he was supposed to celebrate his 30th wedding anniversary together with his wife. He has now lodged a complaint with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and has sent a similar letter to the Macao Chief Executive, Fernando Chui, asking for the justification for his entry refusal.

There was a time when such rebuttals would create a stir. That was especially true in March 2009 when then-Dean of Law from the University of Hong Kong Johannes Chan was prevented from entering Macao over the same motives. This caused an embarrassment for both the Macao government and the inviting party, the University of Macao, as Professor Chan was supposed to be in the SAR for just a few hours to deliver a short lecture on the right to a fair trial — a purely academic endeavour. But that was a few days after the passage of the Article 23 national security law in our SAR, and yet it led not only to a public outcry — including, quite ironically, a vibrant declaration by former Hong Kong Secretary for Security Regina Ip that this was “tightening the freedom” of Hong Kong residents — but also to an informal discussion in Beijing between then-Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang and his Macao counterpart, Edmund Ho. Only Stanley Ho at the time had the bad taste of justifying the unjustifiable in coarse language.

What is truly problematic is that these “stability concerns” appear to be much more politically motivated than security-prompted, then and now. In that respect, the practice reminds us of the disgraceful 1952 McCarran-Walter Act that allowed for many Nobel Prizes to be barred from entering the United States based on individual beliefs only — an act that was repealed in 1990 with the revision of the American immigration law. Are ideas and beliefs being treated the same as the likelihood of committing acts of espionage, sabotage or other dangerous unlawful activities in Macao?

And then a few other questions remain. Is the nature of the relationship between Hong Kong and Macao the same as one between two autonomous nation-states? How come residents from the same country but coming from separate entities can be considered as “foreign”? And if this is a marker of the “high degree of autonomy”, why is it so different when it comes to other political and institutional matters?

Published in Macau Daily Times on July 21, 2017

Friday, July 07, 2017

Kapok: the more the merrier, really?

The very fact that 25 lists of candidates vying for the directly elected seats in the September 17 Legislative Assembly election have been recognised valid by the Electoral Commission should feel like a relief. After all, these ad hoc groupings are what make the legislative elections in Macao look a tad competitive, even though the 14 seats they are fighting for only represent a minority in the Assembly. Another 12 are elected by functional constituencies in which six lists will be running unopposed in five electoral colleges — two lists will take part in the selection process for the professional college, but this is merely to draw an artificial distinction between lawyers and medical doctors in Macao. The seven remaining legislators, thus making 33 altogether, are directly designated by the Chief Executive himself, supposedly for their professionalism and to preserve a harmonious relationship between the legislative and the executive branches of government. Given the recent fiasco surrounding the Land Law, one can seriously doubt the rationale, but then, we don’t hear much from these guys.

In absolute numbers, 25 lists is a lot: we had only 15 in 2001 — the first post-handover election — and then 18 in 2005, 16 in 2009 and 20 in 2013. And 25 might not be the definitive number. Programs have just started to be submitted to the Electoral Commission, and thanks to the new “loyalty pledge” (to the Special Administrative Region and the Basic Law) enclosed in article 30 of the amended electoral law, the Commission is actually endowed with the power to interpret whether these pledges have been done in good faith or not — in Hong Kong, six candidates were disqualified over such an issue in August 2016. Even though the pledges are individually signed, this could heavily cripple some of the lists, which in any case will become irrefutably admitted to enter the fray only on August 8, after all forms of judicial appeal have been exhausted. And when it comes to politics in Macao, law, even in our second system, often follows northern influences, especially when it suits small-circle local interests: back in August 2014, the civil referendum organized by Macau Conscience over the confidence (lack of thereof) people had in Mr Chui Sai On had been branded as outright “illegal” by the government as well by as sycophantic appointed legislators whose capacity to change opinion would make even a Donald blush.

Now, looking at the citizens: back in 2001, there were 160,000 registered voters, whereas we stand at 307,000 today. Only two years after the handover, one could get elected with 5,000 votes (Jorge Manuel Fão), whereas in 2013 the least-well-elected candidate (Leong Veng Chai) gathered some 6,565 suffrages. In effect and relative terms, things have thus stayed remarkably stable in the past 16 years despite the extension of the franchise: if the electorate has doubled, the number of seats submitted to universal suffrage has only grown by 40 percent, and if we anticipate that the minimum number of votes to win a seat might be a little higher this time around — let’s say 7,000 votes — then this threshold has equally only increased by 40 percent!

In the past few weeks, a lot of ink has been spent on departing legislators — depending on the language and affiliation, symbolic mourning has been quite vocal in the press regarding Leonel Alves and Chiang Chi Keong. Others might or will stay though: the Chan Chak Mo, the Fong Chi Keong and even the Kou Hoi In, a legislator since 1992. Now, even Chan Meng Kam, the so-called “king of the votes” of 2013, announced he would not run for this term: fear not, his replacement, not to say his duplicate, Kyan Su Lone, has been dutifully endorsed and groomed for months! And then, William Kuan and his chaozhou followers are joining hands with Angela Leong, so the “sunflowers” should finally get the second seat they have been desperately running after since 2005!

Let’s hope the Democrats finally resort to tactical voting: confronted with an unfair system and manipulative opponents, they owe it to their progressive electorate.

Published in Macau Daily Times, July 7, 2017

Friday, June 23, 2017

Kapok: Half-full, I say!

Most things in life are about perspective. Even a supposedly clear-cut situation can be seen with very different eyes.
Back in 2008, then American Senator Barack Obama remarked in Philadelphia that he had been deemed by commentators as “either ‘too black’ or ‘not black enough’”.
In my home country, France, the recent absolute majority won in the legislature by Emmanuel Macron’s former political movement — after being elected President he had to resign from “On the Move!” — was construed as either “massive” (with 308 seats out of 577, it is one of the biggest since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, whereas the movement was created only in April 2016) or “disappointing” (given the abstention rate of 57.4 percent  the highest ever, and the somewhat under-performance when considering pre-ballot predictions).
Clearly, the glass can be seen as either half-full or half-empty, and this is usually determined by initial expectations and never-ending commentaries.
The same could be said of the just announced new leadership in Hong Kong.
On Wednesday, Carrie Lam, the soon-to-be sworn-in Chief executive, unravelled 21 members of her cabinet that will start working after July 1. Doubters regarding her promise to herald a “new style of governance” have stressed the elements of continuity: the top three principal officials will stay the same — that is Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen and Financial Secretary Paul Chan — and most of the positions will be filled by promoting under-secretaries, senior civil servants or deputy commissioners, while another three will remain in their positions — Lau Kong-wah as Home Affairs chief, Wong Kam-sing as environmental chief and Nicholas Yang as innovation chief. Critics are thus talking about musical chairs at best, and rumours are rife: did the Liaison Office veto some names or did some people plainly and simply refuse?
Yet, the very fact that one — only one, killjoys would say — of these senior officials has been drawn from the pan-democratic camp is truly ground-breaking, although it was somewhat to be expected. By recruiting Democratic Party co-founder and former lawmaker Law Chi-kwong as the new secretary for labour and welfare, Mrs Lam is indeed on the side of innovation; something that would never have crossed the mind of CY Leung. Would it have, it most probably would never have been accepted by the pan-Dems, as “689” (one of Mr Leung’s most amiable nicknames) had come to embody everything that was wrong in Hong Kong’s political past, present and future. Donald Tsang, the Chief Executive from 2005 to 2012, might have, and actually was advised to do so, but either lacked the courage or the proper credentials to follow suit; his long years of service in the British colonial administration led him to be more Catholic than the Pope!
Mrs Lam must find ways of mending the severely damaged relations between state and society in Hong Kong, and recruiting Mr Law is but a first step. The same could be said of the nomination on Thursday of Ronny Tong, a former pro-democracy lawmaker from the Civic Party and a co-founder of the Article 23 Concern Group, to the Executive Council, the consultative body that meets every Tuesday to “[assist] the Chief Executive in policy-making”. Pessimist observers will argue that Mr Tong has become too “moderate”, just like his think-tank “Path of Democracy”, but if not him, who else?
Now, could we ever imagine the same for Macao? Of course not, as this is a process in which pressure is coming from above AND below. Far from validating the common-sense aphorism that “high expectations lead to great disappointments,” Macao is actually creating a proverb of its own: “no expectations at all prompt absolute cynicism”! In the end, this can only be conducive to a rude awakening, unless of course legislative elections become meaningful…
Published in Macau Daily Times, June 23rd 2017