29 June 2015

The Moonscape of Sexual Equality - Part 1 走在崎嶇的路上-上卷


There are things about America that boggle the mind: gun violence, healthcare costs and Donald Trump. But once in a while – not often, just once in a while – the country gets something so right and displays such courage that it reminds the rest of the world what an amazing place it truly is. What happened three days ago at the nation’s capital is shaping up to be one of those instances.

From White to Rainbow


Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a 5-to-4 decision on same-sex marriage, the most important gay rights ruling in the country’s history. In Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Kennedy wrote, “It would misunderstand [gay and lesbian couples] to say that they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find fulfillment for themselves… They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

With those simple words, Justice Kennedy made marriage equality a constitutionally protected right in all 50 states. Obergefell will enter history books as a landmark civil rights victory alongside Brown v. Board of Education (the 1954 Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools) and Roe v. Wade (the 1973 decision to protect women’s abortion rights). President Barack Obama praised the Friday ruling, reminding citizens that “when all Americans are treated as equal, we are all more free.”

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Justice Kennedy, the man in the yellow robe


12 time zones away, on the opposite side of the world, gay and lesbian folks find themselves navigating a very different political terrain. As far as sexual equality goes, Hong Kong looks like the surface of the moon. This is a place where just three years ago a property tycoon made international headlines by offering a HK$500 million (US$65 million) dowry to any man willing to marry his lesbian daughter. Until 1991, homosexual relations were still a crime. The age of consent used to be 16 for heterosexuals but five years higher for gay men, before the Court of Appeals corrected the anomaly in 2006. Even so, the criminal code wasn’t amended to equalize the age difference until last year. To date, the law remains silent on the consenting age for lesbian sex. 

The Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance prohibits discrimination on the grounds of gender, disability, age, race and other status. Sexual orientation is not one of the enumerated groups in the statute, although local courts have interrupted “other status” to encompass it. But there is a catch: the Bill of Rights applies only to government actions – such as public sector hiring and firing – and not to the private realm. Whereas other minority groups are protected by specific statues such as the Race Discrimination Ordinance and the Disability Discrimination Ordinance, there is currently no law to protect citizens from sexual discrimination.

Gigi Chao, next to her husband
who did not receive the $500 million bounty


In conservative Hong Kong, the path to marriage equality is treacherous and depressing. Most citizens have never heard of the phrase “civil union.” Same-sex marriage is so foreign to the collective consciousness that the mere mention of the idea evokes a range of responses from “What is to stop two male friends from getting married just to get public housing or tax benefits?” to “What’s next after same-sex marriage? Brothers and sisters tying the knot?” Given the growing cross-border tensions, many also fear that even more mainlander Chinese would come to Hong Kong through fake marriages.

The picture is just as bleak at the government level. It is no surprise that bureaucrats find same-sex marriage a hard pill to swallow, but they have proved to be just as uncompromising in situations that most reasonable people would consider uncontroversial. Take the case of W, a man who had undergone sex reassignment surgery and was legally a woman according to the new identity card and passport issued by the Immigration Department. Hell-bent on denying W a marriage certificate, however, the Registrar of Marriages summoned every resource at its disposal and fought her application all the way to the Court of Final Appeal, the city’s highest court. The registrar went after the woman with such tenacity that it began to look like a personal vendetta. The court eventually ruled in favor of W and ordered the government to redefine gender as a person’s identified sex instead of his or her biological sex at birth. Today, two years after W’s victory, the government is yet to make any of the legislative changes to comply with the ruling. A bill to amend the Marriage Ordinance was defeated in the legislature in 2014. 

Opponents of same-sex marriage in the name of
religious freedom and family values


But the picture gets bleaker the closer you look. Here is another example of systemic prejudice. UK nationals living overseas – whether they are in a same sex or heterosexual relationship – can get married at British embassies and consulates around the world, provided that the local government does not object to such an arrangement. Even not so gay-friendly governments like China and Russia have given their green light to this so-called “getting married abroad scheme.” But so far the Hong Kong government has refused to play ball. The resistance has much to do with the fact that hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong Chinese received a British National Overseas (BNO) passport before the handover. Bureaucrats are worried that once they sign on to the UK scheme, a deluge of gay and lesbian couples with a BNO passport would rush to the British Consulate in Admiralty to get married, which would in turn expose the government to future judicial reviews if they don’t recognize these “overseas marriages” administered in Hong Kong.

They say the strength of a society is measured by how its weakest members are treated. On that account, Hong Kong is not nearly as mighty as many think. As much as we hold ourselves out as Asia’s World City, our policies and attitude toward sexual minorities fall far short of our self-image. The gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community needs a change agent to take up the cause, unite the various advocacy groups, and lead the continuous struggle toward full sexual equality.

Enter Ray Chan (陳志全), a pan-democratic member of the Legislative Council (Legco) and a former presenter of the popular Commercial Radio program “Fast Slow Beats” – hence his nickname Slow Beat (慢必). The 43-year-old also happens to be the first, and to date the only, openly-gay lawmaker in Hong Kong. At Legco, Chan has been vocal on a variety of issues from electoral reform to social security. He is not afraid to filibuster important government initiatives even if it earned him many enemies. But ever since he came out of the closet in 2012, Chan has gone from a firebrand to also the go-to person on the uncomfortable subject of sexual politics. It is a role that he has assumed with pride and a sense of duty.

Ray Chan (middle), with openly gay Cantopop star
Anthony Wong (in stripes) at Gay Pride

Chan is an outspoken champion against sexual discrimination and, from time to time, a victim of it. As recently as a month ago, he was verbally assaulted by a woman on the subway train, not for his Legco antics but his sexuality. The assailant’s two-minute diatribe ran the full gamut of insult, but with a curious focus on the size of the lawmaker’s manhood. The video, now posted on Youtube with subtitles in several languages, has been viewed nearly 600,000 times. Adding insult to injury – or in this case, injury to insult – South China Morning Post columnist Michael Chugani defended the woman’s behavior by likening it to the pan-democrats’ frequent tirades and name-calling against government officials, arguing that both cases are constitutionally protected free speech. Chugani’s op-ed landed him in the center of a public relations firestorm, as critics lambasted the veteran journalist for condoning hate speech. To Chan, the incident and the ensuing drama were both simpler and more complicated: it underscores what he has been advocating for years – local legislation to outlaw sexual discrimination – except that the struggle has now become much more personal.

All that provided the pretext for my conversation with Ray Chan. Within 24 hours after Obergefell v. Hodges was issued and social media were plastered with the rainbow flag, I sat down with Slow Beat at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club to talk about the moonscape that is the state of sexual equality in Hong Kong. Wearing a pink Hollister T-shirt and denim shorts, Chan brimmed with excitement from the U.S. Supreme Court decision. Between finishing his chicken rogan josh and sending text messages on his iPhone, the lawmaker spoke candidly about sex and politics.

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Read Jason Y. Ng’s conversation with Ray Chan in part 2 of this article to be posted on 1 July.


The infamous woman in yellow

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This article appears on Hong Kong Free Press under the title "Sexual equality: will Hong Kong catch up with the free world? - Part 1."



As posted on HKFP.com



18 June 2015

Comedy of Errors 錯中錯


In politics, sometimes a mistake is just a mistake. Then there are blunders so shocking that they draw gasps and deer-in-headlights stares from even the opponents. The latter happened at Legco today.

After nearly two years of bitter political wrangling, 79 days of street occupation, months of government-funded media blitz, and a last-minute appeal to the opposition by senior Beijing officials, the biggest constitutional showdown in the post-Handover era finally came to an end – and a dramatic one at that. It came as little surprise that the Beijing-backed proposal for the 2017 chief executive election was voted down at the legislature. What’s astonishing was the 28-to-8 defeat. There are 70 seats in Legco and 42 of them are taken by pro-Beijing lawmakers. That means the government was only about five votes shy of the super-majority it needed to pass the electoral reform bill. There were unconfirmed rumors that pro-democracy lawmakers were offered hundreds of millions of dollars to change their minds, although none of them took the bait. In the end, however, the bill that Hong Kong’s No. 2 official Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) has been peddling for months received only eight out of the 70 Legco votes. Even a Hollywood screenwriter couldn’t have come up with a better twist.

The vote count


Exactly what happened is the subject of much contention and confusion. Here’s what we do know. The reform bill was submitted to Legco for a vote yesterday. It triggered a series of predictable floor debate and political posturing that lasted until early afternoon today. But then, shortly after the voting bell had already been sounded, all but a handful of pro-Beijing lawmakers suddenly got up and walked out of the room. Those who stayed – nine from the pro-Beijing camp and 28 pan-democrats – constituted a quorum and they cast their votes: 8 yea, 28 nay, 1 no-vote, 33 absent. Most of the absentees were the pro-Beijingers who had left the room. Thats right, the reform proposal that the Communists had practically drafted themselves will now enter the history books as a bill that got less than 10 votes. For Beijing and the SAR government, it was the equivalent of being thrown a dozen eggs and having them rubbed all over the face. Dripping yolk and all.

After the vote, Jeffrey Lam (林健鋒), a member of the pro-establishment Business and Professionals Alliance (經民聯) and the bumbling lawmaker who initiated the walk-out, scrambled to do damage control. Flanked by his fellow Beijing loyalists (including a visibly fuming Regina Ip (葉劉淑儀)), Lam told reporters that the whole thing was a case of misunderstanding. He had intended to stall the vote by staging an adjournment, Lam claimed, in order to buy some time for fellow pro-Beijinger Lau Wong Fat (劉皇發) who was late to the session. Lam’s real motive might have been to derail the vote altogether to give the Liaison Office (中聯辦)  the de facto Chinese consulate in Hong Kong – a few more days to get some of the pan-democrats to switch sides. Whatever his rationale, Lam failed to communicate his plan to everyone in his own camp, and so some of them ended up staying in their seats. Of the nine, eight followed the party line and cast a “yes” vote. Poon Siu-ping (潘兆平), a little known labor union head, was present in the room but he didnt vote. The poor guy said he didn’t know how to respond, panicked and then pushed the button too late. 

The walk-out


The turn of events looks like amateur night at a comedy club. It is as mortifying as a soccer player who kicks the ball into his own net, or a runner who passes the relay baton to the wrong team. It may be funny-ha-ha for us viewers at home, but Beijing isn’t laughing at all. A political autopsy is now feverishly underway to find out what went wrong and who should take the blame. Slow revenge is not for China, public lynching on the spot is more its thing. That means heads are expected to roll in the coming days. This time, however, everyone is fair game. Any member of the pro-Beijing camp, C.Y. Leung and his cabinet, and the Liaison Office can potentially be held responsible.

To Beijing, this practical joke is another reminder that it should never send an idiot to do a communist’s job. These so-called loyalists may be successful businessmen in their own right, but savvy politicians they are not. They play too much golf and not enough team sports to know how to work together. They are no better than the rent-a-crowds who were hired this week to stand outside Legco and chant pro-government slogans they didn’t understand. Opposition lawmaker Long Hair put it best: it was like drafting a bunch of boy scouts to fight World War II. The biggest loser today was perhaps Regina Ip. The fact that she was one of the lemmings who headed to the Legco door might have dashed her hopes to be the next chief executive. By Beijing’s book, Ip is just one of the idiots.


The "Make it Happen!" campaign


Meanwhile, the pan-democrats are laughing all the way to the bank. Yes, the situation is comical, but more importantly, they have all come out of the political crisis unscathed. With public support for the reform bill hovering at around 50 per cent, they have reason to be worried. Half of their constituents may punish them at the next election for rejecting a proposal that would have given them a vote, any vote, in 2017. A huge upset at the ballot box for the pan-democrats would be Beijing’s consolation prize, especially if the pro-democracy camp loses enough seats such that they can no longer block future electoral reform bills. Luckily for them, the blooper today has shifted the public’s focus and deflected the narrative. Come the next Legco election, few voters will remember the likes of Alan Leong (梁家傑) and Emily Lau (劉慧卿) as democracy blockers. Instead, citizens will think back and say to themselves, “Ah yes, the reform bill got only several votes. What a dreadful proposal it must have been!” Tonight, the pan-democrats can heave a collective sigh of relief; some of them may be celebrating in Lan Kwai Fong right now. Champagne, champagne for everyone!

As for the rest of us, we are now back to Square One. With the bill voted down, Beijing is expected to permanently shelve the sore subject of electoral reform. Hong Kongers can kiss goodbye Article 45, the Basic Law provision that guarantees the right to freely elect their leader. For the five million eligible voters in the city, universal suffrage is dead on arrival. Amidst the belly laughs and cackles, we know deep down inside that the joke is really on us.

From the left: Regina Ip, Lau Wong Fat, Jeffrey Lam


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This article appears on SCMP.com under the title "Comedy of errors at reform vote leaves pro-Beijing camp red-faced... but is the joke also on us?"



As posted on SCMP.com