The Asian Voice

Is this how Hong Kong lawmakers should behave? China Daily (Asia) contributor

Lawmaker Eddie Chu (left) shouts as newly elected lawmaker Vincent Cheng (not seen) takes the Legislative Council oath in Hong Kong, on March 21, 2018.
Lawmaker Eddie Chu (left) shouts as newly elected lawmaker Vincent Cheng (not seen) takes the Legislative Council oath in Hong Kong, on March 21, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

In her commentary, the writer says the antics displayed by lawmakers in LegCo set an appalling example for future generations and choke the machinery of government.

HONG KONG (CHINA DAILY (ASIA)/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - We can't blame young people in Hong Kong for thinking politics is about name-calling, finger-pointing, throwing insults and objects about, stomping around, and even violence when legislative meetings are in session.

After all, it is the frequent behaviour they see in the Legislative Council.

On May 7, four legislators were ejected from a meeting about the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link for shouting down the chairperson.

Last month, a councillor snatched the mobile phone from a female civil servant at the legislature.

She was keeping watch on the whereabouts of legislators in the council building. Her task was to ensure when a bill came to a vote that legislators supporting the bill could be called back to the chamber.

Having taken her phone, the councillor then dashed into the men's toilet, and apparently went through her phone messages.

He has since been arrested for assault, dishonest access to a computer, criminal damage and obstructing a public officer in performing a duty.

The legislature is one of the landmarks that schools regularly organise classes to visit.

Busloads of children go there every day. Even if they don't have the direct experience of witnessing such deplorable antics unbefitting of a people's representative, there are plenty of media reports and visual clips they can watch.

Legislators are political leaders.

Their actions set the tone of public discourse and their behaviour influences social norms... Leaders have a duty to think very hard about the consequences of their actions.

Young people might well think such behaviour is "normal".

They might want to emulate the quick, sharp tongue of some legislators coupled with imaginative stagecraft.

They might consider rudeness a virtue and disrespect a mark of character.

If so, this would greatly affect Hong Kong's social norms. Children learn by imitation. Just imagine how this would affect their character development.

But, why such behaviour?

It is certainly not because legislators don't know better.

They know very well that legislative business is an essential part of society's public affairs.

LegCo has several important functions - notably, they can question the executive and call them to account through questions and special inquiries; and they have exclusive jurisdiction over passing legislation and approving the government's budget.

The disruptors say the reason for their behaviour is frustration.

They are unhappy with the whole political system.

Opposition legislators have applied their talent in the use of the filibuster.

They have become masters at dragging out debates to delay the vote. As the minority in the legislature, they say they have no choice but to use what tools they have to vent their frustration.

In other words, bad behaviour is tactical.

It attracts media attention and through that secures their constituents' support and sends their message to the people.

Thus, even if they lose the legislative vote, they can point out what they are unhappy about.

They say this is their job as minority legislators and that their voters understand why they have no choice but to act in such a manner.

The first is the low cost of bad behaviour in Hong Kong politics.

Legislators no doubt assess risk versus reward before engaging in disruptive behaviour.

If the expected cost exceeds expected benefits, they would not take the risk. In other words, they have taken a calculated risk but with their personal interest as the decisive factor.

This is presumably why the government went to court on the oath-taking of several legislators-designate in 2016, as they used the solemn occasion to promote their own political views in highly theatrical manners instead of pledging to uphold the Basic Law and bear allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China.

With the court disqualifying those legislators, the cost of misbehaviour in oath-taking is now very high and it is unlikely anyone would risk messing with the oath in future.

The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress also provided its interpretation of Article 104 of the Basic Law relating to oath-taking.

It was unlikely that the disqualified legislators ever thought about the possible consequences of their actions.

They had seen other legislators perform theatrics before with no immediate consequence so why not use the occasion to catch a bit of attention and make a name for themselves.

The result was a very heavy price for themselves and for Hong Kong as a whole.

The second is the social meaning of bad legislative behaviour in politically polarised Hong Kong.

While people don't really like poor behaviour and they don't trust politicians and political parties, they can still use their vote to thumb their noses at the establishment.

Moreover, it seems younger voters are more sympathetic to disruptive behavior - perhaps because of their own sense of frustration over authority in general and their perceived lack of opportunities and advancement in particular.

The result of this combination of low political cost and polarisation is increased gridlock and dysfunction in LegCo that deeply affects government work and society.

Those on the executive side of the government have also grown immensely frustrated with some legislators' penchant for drama.

Filibusters have slowed down normal business.

Legislation can't get to the floor of the chamber, and many budget items have to be delayed. Beijing has also had to step in, such as with the oath-taking interpretation.

Legislators are political leaders.

Their actions set the tone of public discourse and their behaviour influences social norms.

The worst part is the examples they are setting for the younger generation. Leaders have a duty to think very hard about the consequences of their actions.

Can they impress us with intellectual rigour, rhetorical elegance and respectful debate for common good? We need them to find solutions to hard problems, where there are no straightforward answers, including building relations with the Chinese mainland.

The author, who served as a legislator from 1992-97 and from 1998-2000, is currently working at the Institute for the Environment at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. China Daily (Asia) is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media.