Hong Kong activists campaigning for anti-discrimination laws.
On 10 June, the Hong Kong government’s Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau (CMAB), the department responsible for LGBT affairs and which includes the Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Unit (GISOU), announced the establishment of a new body to advise the government on anti-discrimination measures. This, the Advisory Group on Eliminating Discrimination Against Sexual Minorities (AGEDASM), replaces the Sexual Minorities Forum (SMF) that collapsed in March this year after a mass withdrawal by LGBT groups organised by campaigning human tights lawyer Michael Vidler and the Pink Alliance chaired by Reggie Ho.
The development is significant, as it indicates that, notwithstanding the refusal of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, to even consult the public on any bill against discrimination (a refusal he announced in his first policy address in January this year), the government has realised that the status quo is unsustainable, for the ground of public opinion, upon which it has hitherto relied to support its refusal to enact a bill, has shifted.
First, let me give a recap of events in Hong Kong since last November to give the background to this news. At that point, Legislative Council (Legco) Member the Honourable Cyd Ho Sau-lan, founding member of the Labour Party, had commissioned a survey by Hong Kong University that found a clear majority (60%) in favour of legislation, but her attempt to persuade a majority of her fellow legislators to accept the need for public consultation failed at the end of 2012. It seems that the government itself then conducted a couple of clandestine surveys which came to similar results to Ho’s, and there was therefore ground for hope as the year turned that at last the Hong Kong government would take note and initiate a proposal for at least consultation, even maybe for a bill.
As a result, Christian opposition to any consultation was ratcheted up and ended in a demonstration of some thousands of fundamentalists outside the government offices. The hope of progress was dashed by the Chief Executive in his January speech. It appears that he was persuaded by the small coterie of advisors that surrounds him that the issue was too controversial and would lead to more demonstrations on the street, something he was not prepared to risk given that he was himself at the time facing almost daily demonstrations over a series of events and issues that were angering the public, many of them relating to his personal probity. He took the easy way out and yielded to this advice.
In March, the Hong Kong government faced the UN Committee in Geneva that monitors the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a covenant that it had signed before the return of Hong Kong to China. The Committee has been critical in the past of Hong Kong’s failure to enact legislation against discrimination, and the response of the Hong Kong government has always been that, as there was no consensus for legislation, it was taking the alternative paths of educating the public and setting up machinery to work with the LGBTI community. To the latter end, it had established both GISOU and the SMF to make it appear that it was addressing LGBT issues, but in reality had deliberately designed them as powerless bodies to create a smoke screen for their inactivity, an old Hong Kong government ploy well learned from colonial days. This March in Geneva, it was about to make the same case again, despite the fact that surveys now proved that there was a consensus in favour of a bill, and despite the fact that the SMF had proved utterly powerless to effect change or remedy grievances and had not even met for over two years. It was at that point that the Pink Alliance, which, along with Human Rights Monitor and Rainbow, was sending a delegation to Geneva, decided to destroy the government’s case by instigating the mass withdrawal of LGBT groups from the SMF. This was accomplished just before the Geneva meetings in March.
Facing increasing local pressure and the likelihood of severe criticism from Geneva, the Hong Kong government has acknowledged that circumstances have changed and so has now established AGEDASM. This is a much more powerful body than the SMF it replaces, both in terms of its membership, which has been broadened to include Legco Members, and its remit. In the letters of appointment to those included as members, the CMAB outlines the aim of AGEDASM as:
To provide a platform for informed discussion on this controversial subject, in particular on the aspects and extent of discrimination faced by sexual minorities in Hong Kong, and, in the light of that, on the strategies and measures to tackle the problems identified with a view to eliminating discrimination and nurturing a culture of tolerance, diversity and mutual respect in the community.
The terms of reference are simple; the AGEDASM is tasked to advise the Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs on the aims I have just cited. The aims are indeed good and clear, but the addition of the word ‘controversial’ is a rather ominous red light that indicates, one might think, the government’s own views and fears. The Hong Kong government sadly has an appalling record when it comes to addressing what it regards as ‘controversial’ issues, much preferring, in good civil service fashion, to lead a quiet life rather than face conflict head on.
The devil, as always, is in the details, for the membership of the AGEDASM, appointed for a term of two years, has deliberately been confined to individuals selected by the government and it has not been open to organisations such as Rainbow or the Pink Alliance to send representatives who might change. Given the fluid nature of LGBTI politics in Hong Kong, this may cause problems later, though at present it can be said that the government’s appointees truly include representative of the LGBTI community.
The CMAB has appointed five of the most prominent activists currently operating. These include three radicals: Tommy Chen (Tommy Tsai/Jai), Executive Officer of Rainbow; Yeung Wai-wai (Wai Wai), member of Woman Coalition of Hong Kong; and Joseph Cho (Siu Cho), Executive Co-Director of Nutong Xueshe and one of the leaders of the new Queer Alliance. The two others are: one of the champions of the trans community, Joanne Lung, Chairperson of the Transgender Resource Center; and moderate and long term activist Reggie Ho, Chairman of the Pink Alliance.
This approach has enabled the government to exclude the New Creation Association, exponent of ‘reparative therapy’ and local representative of Exodus International, which had hitherto disrupted the SMF by claiming a place there. They do not figure in the AGEDASM list, though they have been replaced by a representative of their fellow travellers, the Society for Truth and Light, an organisation that treats homosexuality as a sin and fights against LGBT rights. This representative is Professor Kwan Kai-man, of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Hong Kong Baptist University, a fundamentalist Christian.
The government has also appointed at least one other whose views do not favour LGBTI rights. This is barrister Dr the Honourable Priscilla Leung Mei-fung, a conservative (pro-Beijing) independent Legco Member and an Associate Professor of Law at City University. Leung is a believer that gay rights lead to ‘reverse discrimination’ and one of those behind the gathering outside the government offices of fundamentalist Christians opposing consultation.
The CMAB, of course, maintains that it needs to create a balance to reflect all views, and it has gone some way to alleviate activists’ fears by also including the Honourable Chan Chi-chuen (Ray Chan, Slow Beat) of People Power, the only openly gay Legco Member, and by appointing the widely respected Professor Fanny Cheung Miu-ching, Pro-Vice Chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, as Chairperson. The SMF was chaired by a civil servant and had no independence. Professor Cheung’s appointment has ensured that the AGEDASM will have an independent voice that will be difficult for policy makers to ignore.
Making up the remainder of the new body are others whose detailed views on LGBTI issues we have yet to discover. There is another Legco Member (making three in all), the Honourable James To Kun-sun of the Democratic Party. There are two other leading academics, Dr Andy Chiu, Head of the Department of Law and Business of Hong Kong Shue Yan University, and Professor Kung Lap-yan, Associate Professor of the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. There are also two persons from the business community, Lavinia Lau, General Manager, Sales PRD and Hong Kong for Cathay Pacific Airways and Shirley Ha, Director of Digital Hong Kong Ltd. The addition of members of the business community, which is at the forefront of changes in diversity policy in Hong Kong at the moment, is encouraging.
The AGEDASM is clearly, therefore, a greatly more serious and potentially more powerful body than the SMF it replaces. Whether this will make change more likely or will speed the introduction of legislation against discrimination remains to be seen. There has been considerable controversy amongst the LGBTI community in Hong Kong as to whether its representatives should join the new body or not. Is the AGEDASM just a more cunning version of the SMF, designed to show the world that the Hong Kong government is serious about reform but in effect still with no power to effect it? Some have taken this view and counselled that we should not again enter the same trap. The majority view is, though, that dialogue is necessary to bring about change and that the AGEDASM should be given time to show its true nature and possibilities.
We shall be watching.
Nigel Collett is the Joint English secretary of Tongzhi Community Joint Meeting (TCJM) and Pink Alliance.