Back to a culture of subservience

South China Morning Post  |  Aug 27, 2000

By Sin-ming Shaw

The Robert Chung saga highlights the desire of the SAR's ruling elite to return to Confucian values of obedience

AS Hong Kong awaits the formal publication of the conclusions of the independent inquiry headed by Mr Justice Noel Power into whether a senior government official attempted to interfere with Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu's polling activities - which were yesterday submitted to the University of Hong Kong's governing council - it is a rare person in the SAR who has not already formed an opinion as to what must have happened.

Mr Justice Power has hinted at a possible non-conclusion by imposing the harsh criterion of "beyond a reasonable doubt" to guide his final report as if he were dealing with a criminal case in a courtroom in which witnesses were under oath to tell the truth, and nothing but. Since this was a mere fact-finding inquiry, no one was under oath and even the inquiry panel's lawyer, Patrick Fung Pak-tung, SC, asked on live television whether the contradictions in the different accounts of events meant that someone must be "lying in his evidence".

Just as in the celebrated case of former American football star O. J. Simpson, acquitted of murdering his ex-wife and her friend, most people who followed that case with any common sense had a view on who the killer was - yes, even beyond a reasonable doubt. In Hong Kong, it is not about a murder but an attempt to interfere. So an intelligent conclusion does not hinge on complicated DNA analyses or forensic hypotheses.

This saga involves far more serious issues than whether Tung Chee-hwa's senior special adviser, Andrew Lo Cheung-on, was only acting as a humble "junior person" - a "parrot" looking for intellectual enlightenment - when he went to see the University of Hong Kong vice-chancellor, Professor Cheng Yiu-chung, to discuss Dr Chung's opinion polls.

Or whether the vice-chancellor had a habit of "mumbling" to himself and this was mistaken by others as a directive.

Or whether Dr Chung is effectively a Freudian basket case looking for positive reinforcement from the Chief Executive to gratify his fragile ego.

This is about the ethical behaviour of people in high places. It is about how power ought or ought not to be exercised in a civilised society. Perhaps the most relevant issue is whether Hong Kong's future lies in discarding its liberal democratic yearnings in favour of reverting back to an orderly, Confucian past that puts a premium on authority and obedience; or should this society keep building on its emerging democratic institutions to become a truly modern civil society?

It is clear that the Chief Executive, his allies in the Executive Council and his pro-communist allies outside the Government favour reversion. In their minds, to revert to China's past values is not only a matter of racial pride, it is patriotic. Authority, obedience and stability above all, are cherished slogans of China's top leaders. It is this mindset that helps explain much of the SAR Government's behaviour. In their minds, since Mr Tung's inauguration, it is beyond any shadow of doubt that those who are not compliant are unpatriotic and un-Chinese.

Under such a mindset, those who are pro-China, pro-communist are friends, while those such as the Democratic Party, Apple Daily and South China Morning Post are all enemies.

Last month, when Mr Tung decided to reveal he had abandoned his housing target of 85,000 units two years earlier, he selected only six pro-government newspapers representing 25 per cent of the readership for an exclusive interview, shutting out the rest of the media including the Hong Kong Economic Journal, the only serious intellectual Chinese-language paper published in the SAR. The message is clear: if you are not my friend, you are out.

University of Hong Kong Professor Ying Chan, Dr Chung's current boss but a peripheral figure in the polling saga, was most poignant in pointing out in her final presentation the corrosive effect of a "culture of subservience" evident in the sequence of events starting from Mr Lo's supposedly "humble" visit to the open letters which Dr Chung sent out.

Unfortunately, Professor Chan did not pursue this excellent theme by asking whether this culture was only limited to the principles of this saga or was endemic of Hong Kong society as a whole. Instead, as if to prove the existence of that very culture she denounced, she sided with her seniors and lashed out at Dr Chung for having blown the whistle over nothing. She claimed there was no infringement of academic freedom as Dr Chung was never stopped from doing his work. It must have slipped her mind that if polling work had in fact been stopped, an inquiry would have been unnecessary.

Is there a culture of subservience in Hong Kong? If so, is it so well implanted in the Chinese psyche that it only takes a slight nudge by the political leaders to activate it, infecting even the academic elite? Is it only a matter of time before such feudal values of subservience return as Hong Kong's dominant value system to shape how seven million of the freest Chinese in the People's Republic will relate to their government and fellow citizens, their professors and employers in the years ahead?

Indeed, is it possible that the numerous social and political conflicts since Mr Tung's inauguration reflect the anxieties of a significant segment of Hong Kong's population that has internalised many of the liberal democratic values natural to a society of people who cherish freedom? Is it possible that they fear Mr Tung, by his language and style of politics, may be pulling Hong Kong towards a communist China in values and habits? Mr Tung has the right to find comfortable camaraderie in the company of communists, but not many other people in Hong Kong do this. In fact, even on the mainland, few people do this. Offspring of senior communist leaders are among the most anti-communist critics one encounters in China, or at Harvard University.

If, in fact, this Government is not in touch with the yearnings of a large number of Hong Kong people, then it is inevitable that more conflicts will occur in the future, for they reflect genuine differences in values between the ruler and the ruled.

Conflicts are inevitable in any society. Democratic institutions are invented precisely to resolve conflicting demands by different groups in a fair and peaceful way. It is messy, but as former British prime minister Winston Churchill said, democracy is a terrible system but the alternatives are even worse.

It is rare that an executive-led government can act fairly and wisely as the final arbiter of such conflicts. And a preponderance of examples throughout history proves beyond any reasonable doubt that an executive-led government will, in the end, fail to be fair and wise.

Hong Kong under British colonialism worked because Hong Kong people made an implicit pact with the Brits. Shield us from the communists, let us make money, govern us well, give us an impartial legal system, and we will let you have a monopoly on power.

But there has been no such pact since July 1, 1997. The Basic Law outlines a programme of governance many people across the political spectrum believe is unsuited to solving today's problems. Yet, Mr Tung and his allies seem to believe even that programme is too fast for the good of Hong Kong. There is clearly a vast gap between the ruler and the ruled and the present political system is an obstacle to narrowing that gap.

Mr Tung and his allies among the elite are instinctively anti-democratic. They do strongly and genuinely believe that democracy is a destructive force unsuitable for the Chinese people.

The supreme irony is that an increasing number of people in China, including government cadres, have come to believe that only restoring democracy in China can solve its many political, social and economic problems. They consider people such as Hong Kong's Chief Executive and his local communist allies curious relics of the past who are even more "leftist" in their thinking than some of the mainland leaders.

Andrew Lo and Professor Cheng's actions in the Robert Chung saga are reminders that Hong Kong's political and intellectual elite, far from being a potential guide to China's future, may even be out of tune with their own community here in Hong Kong.

Sin-ming Shaw is a visiting scholar in Chinese history at Harvard University

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