A much debated question. To some, deputy environment minister Christine Loh is a turncoat who has betrayed the democratic cause by joining the administration. To others, she is at least trying to get things done, even if the system makes it near impossible.
A quick look at her track record shows two things: she is ambitious; and she is dedicated to reforming Hong Kong’s approach to the environment (in the broadest sense from planning to sustainability to pollution control to aesthetics) and other areas. Following legal training (some in China) and working in the financial markets, her career has been in three stages.
She served as a popular legislator, starting up her own party. Despite getting the first and only ever private member’s bill through (on harbour protection), she felt she could achieve more elsewhere. She played a part in founding several NGOs, notably Civic Exchange – Hong Kong’s only serious think-tank on public policy – and did some writing and broadcasting. She took the deputy environment minister job in CY Leung’s administration in 2012; that government has since become immensely divisive and hated as an almost-reactionary regime implementing the Chinese leadership’s harsh approach to local political reform and dissent.
For years, the word was that Christine had no chance of winning Beijing’s approval to join the executive branch, on account of ‘foreign links’ and independent-mindedness. Among her suspect past activities are involvement in human rights and writing a book on the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong. She is also hated by the pro-Beijing New Territories forces for demanding equal land-inheritance rights for women.
Despite this, she was never wholly part of the pro-democracy camp. The main difference is that, unlike most of the pan-dem movement, she is interested in policy. In other words, she is a real politician – someone who wants to change the world for the better and has the vision/arrogance to think she knows how to do it. The other pan-dems of her generation fight for universal suffrage but wouldn’t know what to with it if they had it.
In short, she wants to change the system by working within it rather than fighting it. If you could prove that Hong Kong’s opposition – pro-dems, moderates, progressives, reformists, liberals and activists – would enjoy more success had she stayed in their ranks, you could call her a traitor for undermining the movement. But this is hard to believe. We have enough opposition figures being shunned by officials, demonized by the pro-government media and smeared by Beijing’s propagandists.
Critics will say that Christine is a disgrace for not speaking out (in other words, resigning) against the intimidation and the threats to law and freedom we are now seeing. They might also complain that she legitimizes the administration, giving it a liberal and human face it doesn’t warrant. But this goes for a lot of other officials from the Chief Secretary down who seem uneasy about Hong Kong’s drift to authoritarianism. They also stay, out of duty or perhaps fear that a hardcore patriot would replace them.
At some point she would have to draw a line and quit: if they make her dress up in an Army Cadet uniform, perhaps, or if the PLA start shooting students. Meanwhile, the only hope of getting anything done, let alone one day rising to a higher position, is to play it by the book and keep her head down. (Her lack of practical achievement in, say, cleaning the air is sadly inevitable given the bureaucratic and corporate interests at play – that is the system she no doubt wants to change.)
It’s distasteful. But politics is dirty that way. Meanwhile, the ones who stay noble and pure ponder their next futile gesture.