Chris Yeung: Hong Kong first-ish, sometimes

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Poor Wai Chai, abandoned by his parents, is abandoned by Hong Kong’s unreliable Hong Kong first policy.

(Photo credit: Tai Kung Pao)

What if “Wai Chai” (懷仔) were not from the mainland? That’s the question Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying asked as he waded into the furore over the case of 12-year-old Siu Yau-wai. The boy surfaced at a press conference last week after having lived illegally in the city for nine years, raised by his grandmother who claimed he was abandoned as a baby by his parents. The revelation has sparked ugly protests by a host of fringe pan-democratic groups against giving right of abode of the undocumented boy.

Pro-Beijing unionist legislator Chan Yuen-han (陳婉嫻), who helped the family to bring the case into open, admitted she did so to put pressure on the Immigration Department to expedite the handling of the case. Chan did not say explicitly Wai Chai should be given the right to stay.

After the Thursday press conference, Wai Chai has been given a temporary permit to stay while the Immigration Department was looking into his case and looking for his parents, whose whereabouts were unclear. His grandmother was arrested for helping him breach conditions of stay.

Revelation of the case ignited protests by groups championing the notion of localism. They include Civic Passion, Localism Power and Hong Kong Indigenous. Interestingly, major political parties from the pro-establishment camp and pan-democratic force have been shied from the debate. Nor they have taken a clear position on whether Wai Chai should stay or go. Human rights groups have also kept a low profile.

But the protests by the fringe groups, in particular one outside a school that has helped conduct an aptitude test on Wai Chai as part of preparation for giving him education, have become a new source of tension in the unsettled mainland-Hong Kong relations.

Shortly after a group of protesters demonstrated outside the Immigration Department’s headquarters in Wan Chai on Monday, the department issued a fuller statement to cool down the political temperature. They reiterated the department has no intention of exercising discretionary power to grant residency right to Wai Chai. Also importantly, they criticised the unlawful act of Wai Chai’s grandmother and clarified that they did not encourage such a move. The Immigration Department’s statement, if slow in coming, has helped clear up the misunderstanding among some people that Immgration had, or planned to, give right of abode to the boy.

If the department’s move has helped moderate the socio-political atmosphere, Leung Chun-ying’s tough talk on the protests has done the opposite.

At his usual pre-Executive Council stand-up media briefing on Tuesday, Leung condemned “radical” activists for “damaging social order” by staging the protests against Wai Chai. “If (Wai Chai) were not from the mainland … would these radicals adopt the same approach?”

Although Leung has raised the mainland factor in the form of question, he delivered an unambiguous message that the bone of contention in the case was that Wai Chai was born in the mainland.

Protesters’ denied targeting Wai Chai because of his mainland background, However, the fact they flew the banner of localism speaks for itself. The mainland connection is precisely why the case has gathered momentum to become a political typhoon.

The anger gives voice to the growing feeling of anxiety, particularly among young people, about the increasing influence of the mainland in the city.

Open the floodgates
Against the background of unease about the unregulated flow of mainland visitors, the case of Wai Chai has stoked fears that it might open a floodgate if he were allowed to stay. Some people are worried that might be similar cases of undocumented people in the city. A green light to Wai Chai may send a wrong message to the mainland that undocumented people stand a chance of staying by seeking to win the sympathy of people through public appeal.

Their concerns about the city’s resources being shared by people from the mainland grew further as they read reports that Wai Chai paid a visit to a primary school in Wong Tai Sin for a test. Not surprisingly, it is being seen as a step for him to be given education.

Concern about additional, unfathomable pressure on the city’s resources aside, an underlying and critical factor behind the controversy over the case and the current mainland-Hong Kong relations is the fear of so-called mainlandisation (大陸化). There is a growing sense of unease among the localism activists and in some quarters in society that the systems and values of Hong Kong are being eroded, replaced by the mainland systems and practices.

Underlying the furore is a feeling of mistrust towards the Hong Kong authorities, a sense that that they will not handle the case in accordance with the law, policy and established procedures. To the localism activists, the stakes are high. They are not just protesting against giving special dispensation to Wai Chai, but are defending Hong Kong’s systems and fighting for the rule of “Hong Kong first” in governance and mainland-Hong Kong ties.

Sometimes Hong Kong first

Chan Yuen-han did not say explicitly Wai Chai should be given the right to stay.

The principle of “Hong Kong first” is not fundamentally wrong. The fact is Leung promoted the concept in his campaign for the 2012 chief executive election. He delivered on “Hong Kongers first” in his early months of governance by imposing restrictions on a land sale to require a block of flats be sold only to Hongkongers. The legislative limit on the quantity of milk powder visitors are allowed to carry at their departure is another case of Leung giving priority to Hong Kongers.

But when it comes to political reform, Beijing’s insistence on the principle of national security and national interest has made a mockery of the promise of giving Hong Kong people a say in the electoral arrangements, let alone the notion of “Hong Kong first”. Speculation is rife Beijing might impose national security law in view of the delay in the enactment of an anti-subversion law, known as Article 23.

Chan Yuen-han is seen as a rare open minded voice from the pro-Beijing left with a sensitive touch for the complexity of mainland-Hong Kong relations in the pro-Beijing flagship Federation of Trade Unions. That she found herself in hot water says something of the increasing precarious relations across the border.