Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor says she was not involved in the controversial decision to disqualify a young activist from running in the coming Legislative Council by-election.
Lam was speaking at a short question-and-answer session at Legco on Wednesday where she was grilled by pan-democratic lawmakers, who said the recent disqualification of Agnes Chow Ting had amounted to political censorship.
On Saturday, the returning officer said that Chow’s candidacy for the March 11 by-election was invalid on the grounds that the call for self-determination for Hong Kong – as advocated by her party Demosisto – went against the “one country, two systems” principle.
“From the moment [Chow’s] candidacy was being considered to when the announcement of the disqualification was made, I was not in Hong Kong and hadn’t participated in the process,” Lam said, as she addressed a question from Civic Party lawmaker Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu.
The chief executive reiterated that the returning officer had the power to determine the eligibility of candidates and would seek legal advice from the Department of Justice if needed.
“When the decision was being made, I was not in Hong Kong and had spent a week in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum. But as the law and the factual basis are so clear, it appears that [the returning officer] did not need others – particularly me – to participate,” she said.
As chief executive, Lam said she would not hesitate to offer her views on legal advice, and that was also the same approach she adopted when she served as the chief secretary and minister.
Asked by Yeung if she was trying to keep out of the saga, Lam said: “Some decision-making power is not in the hands of the chief executive and I would not intervene in these decisions.”
But Democratic Party leader Wu Chi-wai was not convinced.
“No one would believe that the biggest power in Hong Kong is neither enjoyed by Sai Wan [Beijing’s liaison office] nor Central [the Hong Kong government] but a returning officer,” he said.
Wu urged Lam to clarify whether the election ban on Chow and her party colleagues was lifelong and under what circumstances could they contest an election again, adding the ban had violated Chow’s equal election rights, as enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Lam ducked the question, saying it was hard to foresee the future as she could not guarantee both the law and the facts, concerning the political party, would remain unchanged for good.
She added Chow could appeal the decision through judicial means.
Opposition politicians and legal experts decried the government’s move, with the European Union saying that Hong Kong’s reputation as a free and open society would take a hit.
Lam was speaking at her first 30-minute question time in Legco. She had offered to take lawmakers’ questions in person as often as once or twice a month, on top of the four 90-minute question-and-answer sessions the chief executive attended at the legislature each year.
Pro-establishment lawmakers, in contrast, all focused on livelihood issues – such as the need to import foreign labour and elderly welfare – and did not touch on any thorny political issues.