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17 Sep 2008

What the recent polls mean for Hong Kong's LGBT community

Hong Kong went to the polls on Sept 7 to elect its fourth Legislative Council since the handover. Fridae's Hong Kong correspondent Nigel Collett finds that the political climate may warm - if only slightly - for the LGBT community and highlights the issues that are being watched by LGBT groups in Hong Kong.

Background on Hong Kong's political system and results of recent elections

Eleven years on from China's resumption of sovereignty, the Hong Kong legislature remains a strange beast, hobbled into being neither fish nor fowl by the twin desires of the Beijing Government to delay the introduction of one man-one vote democracy (according to a 2007 pronouncement of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, direct elections 'may be implemented' in 2017) and the Hong Kong administration to govern without proper legislative oversight. The Legislative Council has 60 members, of which only 30 are as yet elected directly in geographical constituencies, the other 30 being elected within 'functional constituencies', which are something akin to medieval trade guilds, groups which exclude much of the population and are arbitrarily formed by economic activity, such as commerce, retail, legal and real estate and construction.

This hang over from British rule has proved very useful to a Hong Kong Government wishing to pack the legislature with its allies, for the majority of those elected in functional constituencies are supporters of the Government and of Beijing. In the current legislature, the Pan Democrats, a loose coalition of nine groups of generally liberal and anti-administration view, won 57.28% of the directly cast votes, and so 19 geographical seats, slightly down on 2004's result but still ahead of the groups supporting the administration, which polled 41.01% of the vote and won 11 of these seats. The way the system is weighted against the democrats (and currently - so far consistently - against the will of the people) is shown in the final result once the functional constituencies were added: the pro-administration groups now have 35 seats, the Pan democrats 23. This is a system similar to the rotten borough constituencies controlled by a few men in their own interests, which the British reformed as far back as 1832. It is, of course, a model of the sort of system with which the anti-government groups in Thailand are now seeking to mar their own democracy. Not, in short, a system worthy of a free people.

What it means for the LGBT community/cause
All of which dry political stuff would seem to indicate that the chances of reforms passing Legco to benefit the LGBT community are remote. However, this may be something of a misperception. Firstly, it is by no means clear that one may safely assume that every pro-democrat is a social liberal, or that every supporter of the administration is homophobic.

Experience in the legislature in the past, where members have tended to vote on what could be regarded as less crucial social issues more in line with their own views than they would on matters considered vital Government policy, has shown that there can be surprises both ways. Some democrats are swayed by their Christian beliefs. Some members of the major pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB for short) are pragmatists who look at issues on their own merits.

Nelson Wong Sing-chi, for instance, who won a geographical seat for the Democrats in New territories East, was one democrat who seemed to observers to be ambivalent in his views during the election, being noticed apparently supporting at different times both LGBT rights and the position of the rabidly homophobic Society for Truth and Light. The opinions of James To Kun-sun, the democrat elected for Kowloon West, also lead observers to suspect that he is not in favour of LGBT rights. On the other hand, tourism functional constituency member Paul Tse Wai-chun, husband of socialite agony aunt Pamela Pak Wai-kam, is a loose cannon who speaks his mind, often in favour of liberal social views, and is seemingly broad-minded enough to support or at least not oppose pro-LGBT measures.

A few of our opponents have gone; James Tien, Chairman of the Liberal Party, and his Vice Chairman, Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee, fell in the electoral destruction that befell their business oriented party this time around. As a result, Selina Chow felt obliged to resign her seat on the Executive Council. We have lost a few friends, too, particularly Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, Vice Chairman of the Civic Party, which did not do as well as hoped in the elections. Fernando was a great supporter of LGBT rights who had been working towards the inclusion of same sex couples in the Domestic Violence Ordinance. But more friends have stayed on; Cyd Ho Sau-lan, founder of the pro-democrat party, The Frontier; 'Long Hair' (Leung Kwok-hung); Emily Lau also of The Frontier; and Margaret Ng, representative of the legal functional constituency and the redoubtable champion of the rights of every citizen before the law. All these are all back in the house. Some of those elected this time were also observed making remarks favourable to the LGBT community on the hustings: Albert Chan Wai-yip of the League of Social Democrats and Leung Yiu-chung, of the HK Confederation of Trades Unions, are two that spring to mind.

A very partial and provisional head count shows some 15 possible allies with regards to LGBT issues, up by one or two on the membership of the last legislature.

Issues that are being watched by LGBT groups in Hong Kong
All this means that there is much to play for in the next legislature. The first issue which the community will seek to address is the inclusion of same sex couples in the provisions of the Domestic Violence Ordinance, much debated in Committee in the last session, when the Government was pressed to include an amendment which it recognised was necessary but which it was unwilling to bring to the chamber before the election. With powerful allies like Cyd Ho back in Legco, there are grounds for hope that this measure will succeed this time, and it is one which many LGBT groups in Hong Kong, led by the Women's Coalition, will be focussing their energies on.

It also remains to clear some legislative baggage left over from the past. The inequalities in the punishment of same sex offenders ruled unconstitutional in Billy Leung's 2006 age of consent case (Section 118c of the Crimes Ordinance) have not yet been amended in the law; Section 118c remains, unenforceable, on the statute book. A tussle is looming, too, over the provisions of a new measure to register sex offenders, which, in its current form, seems to violate the constitution in similar ways. In the background lurks the overarching issue of legislation to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, an issue which the Government continues to assure the United Nations it is addressing but which it avoids by hiding behind surveys of public opinion and the mounds of hate mail it receives from fundamentalist groups. Whilst Mr Justice Hartman, in his 2008 ruling against the Broadcasting Authority of Hong Kong in the judicial review brought by Siu Cho, made it plain that the law as it stands in Hong Kong encompasses sexual orientation within its provisions against discrimination on sexual grounds, the need remains to provide legislation to protect the LGBT community against specific acts of discrimination. The Tongzhi Community Joint Meeting, chaired by Reggie Ho, will be looking at ways to take this issue forward in the next session, and will be assembling evidence of real discrimination to change the minds of those legislators so far un-persuaded of the need for this legislation.

As it will of the lingering sore which is the presence of fundamentalist Christian homophobes on the Government's LGBT consultative body, the Sexual Minorities Forum. The Government's invitation to the New Creation Association, a peddler of 'reparative therapy', to sit on the Forum (on the grounds that it 'represented' a minority of a minority who were gay but didn't want to be) led to a walkout of the LGBT members in 2007. These are now back on the Forum, having registered (and intending to continue to register) complaints about the presence of the opponents of the community. Horizons has taken one step forward in this campaign by initiating a formal complaint to the Medical Council about the activities in Hong Kong of the 'reparative therapists'.

It looks like the next Legco session will be one of interest to us all. And to start all this off with a bang, Hong Kong's Gay Pride march is now planned for Dec 13 this year. Keep the date free in your diary and dust off your marching shoes!

Correction (Sept 18, 2008): Paul Tse Wai-chun and Pamela Pak Wai-kam are not married as reported but are in a relationship.

Hong Kong

Reader's Comments

1. 2008-09-18 07:30  
I don't think Paul Tse and Pamela Pak are married.
2. 2008-09-18 10:20  
Bluetit is right. Apologies. I should have said that they were in a relationship.

Thank you, Bluetit,

Nigel Collett

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