When it comes to the dull gray, heavy metal lead, the Hong Kong government’s political opponents are – shall we say – in their element. The Democratic Party, which first exposed traces of the cumulative poison in water supplies, is demanding that the authorities test more and more public housing estates and, now, private-sector developments. The Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood is also joining in. And the Neo-Democrats, seeing how easy it is to get samples analyzed, are uncovering more cases.
Officials are scrambling to keep up. They would love to dismiss the whole thing as scaremongering. If they enjoyed more trust they would be able to reassure the community by calmly explaining the apparently low level of contamination in terms of international health standards. But there is an underlying public mood – going back to SARS and various tainted-food scandals – that dangers lurk everywhere, and a nagging suspicion that this administration would not be above colluding with Mainland interests to cover them up. The government cannot run the risk of appearing callous and so must be seen to respond promptly and gravely to the pro-democrats’ every complaint.
The ruling powers are in a difficult position. Beijing’s local officials require the loyalist DAB and FTU groups to back the Hong Kong government – so joining in the clamour about death in every drop of water is a no-no. On the other hand, these patriotic fronts are the Communist Party’s main electoral weapons against the evil, hostile, foreign-backed, pro-democracy camp. They need to appear at least partly independent of the unpopular and inept administration to keep their vote up in forthcoming District and (next year) Legislative Council polls.
Maybe the pro-Beijing forces will manage to finesse the Poisoned Water Horror. But this could be just the beginning of a new sort of struggle. The banishment of political reform as an issue could leave the mainstream pro-dems redundant, bleating endlessly to themselves about arcane electoral structures. But it could actually be liberating. There are so many bad and wrong things they can use to hurt the government with. The pro-dems won’t agree on every anti-establishment, progressive or trendy cause. They won’t – and shouldn’t try to – protest every over-greedy tycoon, every pepper-sprayed student, every migrant worker injustice, every elder denied timely medical care, every family in a subdivided flat or every endangered dolphin or country park enclave. They just need to pick one or two high-profile cases, big or small, that most residents will agree on, as they come along. Which they will. There will never be a shortage.
Here’s a mouth-watering one on a plate: the old free bicycle repairman being prosecuted for illegal hawking. Proof that the gods are pan-dems.