Monday, 7 November 2016

the apple tree needs shaking

In August 1985, I wrote to the South China Morning Post to express my outrage at the attempts to suppress democracy that were taking place in Hong Kong in the aftermath of the signing of the Joint Declaration between China and the UK. Following the pro-democracy protests in the territory in 2014, I tried to locate that letter the next time I was in the UK, without success. However, I did finally manage to find the letter this summer, and given the current crisis and the likely interference in Hong Kong’s affairs by the Chinese government, I reproduce it here.

*  *  *

If I say that Mr Chuan Kou is an enemy of democracy, it is because he has chosen to write in such a vague, cloudy style that I could have mistaken his meaning. Indeed, were it not for the fact that somewhere in a mass of undigested verbiage he was probably trying to say something important, I would not have spent several hours trying to excavate a meaning. Out of the jumble of clichés, mixed metaphors, non sequiturs and general absurdity, I can select only a few remarks for comment, and if I have taken these out of context and thereby misapprehended his intentions, perhaps Mr Chuan will enlighten me in due course.

In the first place, ‘one country, two systems’ is not a political innovation. It is a catchphrase. And like all catchphrases it has a fine sound but means little—or, rather, what meaning it does contain is deeply buried. It is worth taking a closer look. What are the two systems? Most people will probably feel, instinctively, that they are democracy and totalitarianism.

Now that it is 1985, it may be considered passé to quote George Orwell, but nobody has pinpointed the essentially schizophrenic mentality of totalitarianism with greater clarity. In Inside the Whale, he wrote that an adherent may be required to alter his fundamental convictions at a moment’s notice, on pain of damnation. “The unquestionable dogma of Monday becomes the damnable heresy of Tuesday….” And so it does. It has happened several times in China since 1949, and just because China is passing through a relatively liberal phase at present is no guarantee that it will continue to do so. In fact, democracy and totalitarianism are fundamentally incompatible.

Is it not more likely that the two systems are socialism and capitalism? This presents far fewer problems, because capitalism can flourish as well under fascism as it can under a democratic government. It is not simply that Taiwan and South Korea enjoy American military protection that has allowed them to remain independent for more than 30 years. The communists can bide their time, safe in the knowledge that whatever ideological re-education is necessary when the time comes, the eradication of democratic habits of thought will not be a serious problem.

With his references to “budding politicians and public affairs activists…jumping on the bandwagon”, and sinister threats, as in “Hong Kong people…showing with facts that they know how to behave”, Mr Chuan seems to mistake the silence of the majority for approval, while those who speak out are saboteurs, wreckers or meddlesome fools.

Mr Hilton Cheong-Leen, in a recent report covering his candidacy for the forthcoming Legco elections, talked about “consensus…the Chinese way”, which is another way of saying the same thing, reinforced by an appeal to Chinese nationalist sentiments and an implicit put-down of the confrontational politics of the West.

However, there are at least four possible reasons for the deafening silence with which Hong Kong people greet almost every major issue: (1) they approve of whatever is happening and feel that no further comment is needed; (2) they do not approve but feel that protest is pointless; (3) they do not care; and (4) they do not understand the issues involved.

Anyone who believes the first reason is also capable of believing that the current Umelco [unofficial members of the Executive and Legislative Councils] represents the broad mass of the people. Of the other three, the fourth is a strong contender. Coming from a society in which political consciousness is part of one’s way of life, I’m bound to say that the lack of political awareness in Hong Kong is appalling. However, my inclination is to attribute the quietism of Hong Kong’s people to a mixture of hopelessness, apathy and ignorance, the proportions varying from person to person.

The problem is this: how can this situation be reconciled with the establishment of democracy? The short answer is that it cannot. A passive population is a godsend to both the dictator and the revolutionary (and, it might be added, to the bureaucrat). Far from telling people to shut up Mr Chuan, I suggest that you encourage them to ask questions. Why is this happening? What will be the result? Who will benefit? And, most important of all: what can I do?

This brings the argument full circle, because one thing the average citizen can do is to query the utterances of public figures. Referring back to the story on Mr Cheong-Leen, I quote: “But I know when to stand up and be counted.” This sentence is meaningless. It is also too much of a cliché to be counted a neat piece of rhetoric, but to the politically innocent it is a fine-sounding statement, which is why it was made in the first place.

My natural instinct is to ask: when? A politician must be judged on his or her record, not on a vague statement of intent, and it is a fact that compared with his challenger, Mrs Elsie Elliott, Mr Cheong-Leen is not in the same universe. If the test of an honourable politician is someone who is not afraid to make enemies, even of those who are in a position to retaliate with some savagery, then Mrs Elliott may qualify as the only honourable politician in the territory.

And this brings me to another statement from the same story, an unattributed quote that I thought was quite irresponsibly placed near the top of the story. It was suggested that Mrs Elliott was too old and too radical to be an effective legislative councillor. This comment turns on the word ‘radical’, which in Hong Kong appears to have the connotations of a swear word. I can only say that far from being to her detriment, this is Mrs Elliott’s strong point: she has never been afraid to speak out on anything that she considers an injustice.

Imagine this: we could be on the edge of a historic watershed, the appearance of a legislative assembly that actually holds debates! The important point is not whether she is right or wrong. The freedom to disagree is crucial to the spirit of democracy. The key is that issues are discussed, which brings me back to Mr Chuan Kou.

If he really does believe that “a vociferous minority has churned up lots of idealistic but unrealistic claptrap”, then he does not believe in debate, and his later reference to Mao’s ‘Hundred Flowers’ movement, apparently self-contradictory, is in reality something of a giveaway. After all, the original of that reference was no more than a clever little trap to smoke out ‘unreliable’ elements in the Chinese Communist Party.

And Mr Chuan is certainly in distinguished company. Miss Maria Tam, for example, must be one of the most powerful opponents of democracy in Hong Kong. It should not be forgotten that she opposed direct elections to Legco on the grounds that it could throw up ‘unsuitable’ candidates. (For those who missed the earlier lesson in doublespeak, ‘unsuitable’ in this context means politically ‘unreliable’, which is itself a euphemism for having genuine popular support). And it was Miss Tam who played a major role in steamrolling the Powers and Privileges Bill through Legco recently. Pious protestations to the contrary, this had nothing to do with democracy; it was a vital step in the creation of a self-perpetuating oligarchy. It is to be counted a huge stroke of luck that enough people saw through this particular scam for it not to work.

Unfortunately, Hong Kong is going to need much more than luck if anything that even remotely resembles democracy is to appear before 1997. (We can take it as read that if not before, there is no chance after.) I do not begin to claim that I have all the answers, or even some of them, but if this letter forces people to think, then it will have served its purpose.

In the meantime, we should see that a catchphrase like ‘maintaining the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong’ is just that—a catchphrase, a rallying cry for those who have a vested interest in retaining the present system of patronage and privilege, and a subtle admonition that to speak out could mean shaking the apple tree. Well, I say shake the damned tree! Although it could turn out to be quite a shock when we discover just how much fruit is already rotten.

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