HK leaders fail us by not speaking truth to power
What is the tattered thread that links the attempt to impose draconian anti-subversion laws on Hong Kong and the current increasingly fraught plan to introduce compulsory national and moral education for schoolchildren?
Both plans reflect deep-seated concerns in Beijing. The first is a fear of subversion spreading from Hong Kong and, second, a firm conviction that the people have yet to shake off their colonial mindset. These concerns made both the projects priorities.
Fears of this kind among the leaders of a one-party state are never far from the surface and they are often fanned by sycophants seeking advancement.
What is really worrying in Hong Kong is that some local opportunists have been doing their worst, stirring up the Communist Party leadership in ways that they are easily stirred. Others, charged with the responsibility for keeping the masters in Beijing informed of local affairs, may not be egging them on but dare not tell the bosses things they don't want to hear.
Thus, when asked in 2003 whether the people of Hong Kong would be happy with the new anti-subversion laws, they rushed to assure the bosses that there was no problem.
We are hearing this kind of thing now as the new chief secretary, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, echoes the nonsense spouted by her predecessors, in this instance claiming that the public is solidly behind plans for the new education curriculum. Better was expected of Lam but it seems to be the case that climbing the greasy pole of the Hong Kong administration involves an abandonment of common sense.
Of course, it is more than possible that the political agenda developed in Beijing for implementation in Hong Kong could proceed without local encouragement. But the way the system works is that the bosses seek input from the SAR and then use it to justify their decisions.
Naturally, none of this is openly stated but Beijing is a creature of habit and the way it works is pretty well known.
What we perhaps did not know but maybe should have known, is the extent to which the people who are supposed to be Hong Kong's leaders simply refuse to stand up for the city's core values. They seem to regard the concept of 'one country, two systems' as little more than an excuse to dodge the responsibilities that come with running one of those systems.
Maybe they can afford to be relaxed over what happens in local schools because these hypocrites have shipped their own children overseas for education.
In their defence, however, it needs to be said that standing up to the bosses in Beijing is not easy and can be positively risky. There is a marvellous story from the Soviet era that perfectly illustrates how dictatorships operate when refusing to hear criticism.
It involves Nikita Khrushchev, the party leader who succeeded Stalin and embarked on a tour speaking to party cadres in the regions. At one meeting, he was asked why, if everyone in the leadership knew that some of Stalin's policies were wrong, they said nothing. Khrushchev heard the shouted question, looked up from his text, scowling, and asked: 'Who said that?' There was utter silence. 'Now you know,' he replied, with the ghost of a smile.
So, it takes a lot of courage to be in the room with powerful leaders of a dictatorship and say things they do not want to hear. But is there not a scintilla of courage among the people who have taken on the mantle of leadership in Hong Kong?
The answer is self-evident, and this is so even though the consequences of silence are very damaging for those who fail to speak. Tung Chee-hwa effectively lost his job in the wake of the Article 23 anti-subversion law debacle. Leung Chun-ying, the new chief executive, is hoping that his allies will win big in the coming elections, but this education fiasco could not have been better timed to damage their chances.
The bosses in Beijing are not well versed in democratic elections and so are unlikely to have thought out the timing here. But knowledge of how Hong Kong works is precisely what the local leadership is supposed to possess. And yet ...
Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur