With the unprecedented extension of the Legislative Council’s term by one year, the fate of four Hong Kong government bills previously thought to be dead in the water is again hanging in the balance, with lawmakers across the ideological spectrum set to revisit their stances on the legislation amid soaring political tensions.
The uncertainties surrounding the government’s policymaking came as the last Legco session before summer saw the ditching of four separate pieces of draft legislation aimed at tackling the city’s housing supply, premium taxi services, e-cigarettes and waste disposal.
Consumed with internal political strife and beset by delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Legco bills committees gave up on scrutinising the four bills in June, citing a lack of time necessary for proper vetting before the end of the term in July. The government at the time expressed “deep regret” with the shelving of each bill, some of which have languished for years.
Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.
However, given Beijing’s controversial extension of Legco’s current term by another year, and the fact that most of the incumbent legislators have committed to serving out the term, the legislature is expected to resume discussion of the four aborted bills after a House Committee meeting next week.
The bills deal with measures establishing a new class of premium taxis, banning the sale of electronic cigarettes, introducing a mandatory waste disposal charge and creating a vacancy tax to punish developers which leave flats empty for long periods.
However, questions still linger over their respective fates, as lawmakers across the political spectrum may find themselves having second thoughts about the bills.
Wu Chi-wai, chairman of the opposition Democratic Party, which has seven Legco seats, said that even if the scrutiny of the four bills resumed, his party’s lawmakers would approach them from the perspective of whether they better enabled the government to quash dissent.
“The Legco extension is unprecedented and we are not sure if the four bills committees will resume working. I assume the House Committee meeting will handle this issue and we’ll have the answer,” he said.
“Even if the work will continue, the Democratic Party now adopts a different approach. We’ll look beyond the bills themselves and revisit our stance for each bill. We will see whether the new laws would further empower the government to crack down on its opponents.”
Wu cited the current social-distancing rules as an example, arguing that what was introduced as an anti-pandemic measure had instead become a tool for police to crack down on protesters under the pretext of arresting those violating the restrictions on public gatherings.
“It’s supposed to be the job of the health inspectors. Now it becomes a political tool for police to casually arrest people,” he said.
He said some of the bills, such as the waste disposal charge, might appear apolitical, but even that proposal would involve the installation of security cameras in certain areas to monitor people’s compliance, possibly giving rise to the infringement of privacy and abuses of power by police.
“Amid the growing social distrust of the government, if any proposed law will empower the government’s authority and restrict people’s freedoms, we will certainly oppose it,” he said.
Lawmaker Vincent Cheng Wing-shun, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), which has 13 Legco seats, said his party might have doubts of its own about the waste disposal bill.
“My understanding is that the four bills committees are likely to resume their scrutiny work, but it will be up to the House Committee to decide,” Cheng said. “As to our stance for each bill, we have not formally discussed these matters or reached any consensus. But we still hold reservations about the waste disposal charge.”
However, Jeremy Tam Man-ho, of the opposition Civic Party, said his group had not changed its stance and remained supportive of the four bills.
“Actually, we’ve supported the four bills. It was only the delaying tactics of the pro-establishment lawmakers which caused the shelving of these bills,” Tam said.
Meanwhile, lawmaker Frankie Yick Chi-ming, of the pro-business Liberal Party, said he had always opposed the franchised taxi bill.
“For the other bills, our party hasn’t discussed these yet, so we haven’t reached a decision,” Yick said.
Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung, an Executive Council member and lawmaker from the pro-Beijing Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong, which holds eight Legco seats, said his party had not discussed its position on the four bills yet.
In response to inquiries from the Post, the Food and Health Bureau was adamant that the proposed ban on e-cigarettes should go ahead, saying it would “seize the opportunity to fight for the passage of the proposed ban on all alternative smoking products at the quickest possible time and enhance the overall work on tobacco control”.
Of the taxi bill, the Transport and Housing Bureau said: “The government will take into account the views of the public and relevant circumstances when considering whether or when to reintroduce the bill into Legco.”
With regards to the vacancy tax, the bureau said bills committee members had expressed divergent views, and that it would give appropriate consideration to public opinion.
The Environment Bureau, meanwhile, said it would communicate with Legco about how to proceed with work on the waste disposal bill in later meetings.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Who is Tanya Chan? Hong Kong opposition lawmaker’s curtain call on career shifts spotlight to her past
- Hong Kong’s top court reiterates need for electoral officials to uphold procedural fairness in ruling on ousted lawmaker’s appeal application
- Two Hong Kong opposition lawmakers announce exit from Legislative Council as result of ‘stay-or-go’ poll looms