Conjuring up the desired sentiment

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 June, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 June, 1999, 12:00am

An unprecedented sense of frustration seems to have driven some of the most vocal and resourceful sectors to resort to organised efforts to defend their rights and values, in the face of an increasingly assertive government.

A string of recent policies has left many wondering whether there remain any effective checks and balances against Tung Chee-hwa's administration.

The rift between the Government and the legal fraternity is apparently beyond repair over the right of abode issue. The Catholic Church, which had remained by and large politically neutral in the run-up to the handover, last week also joined the fray by censuring the Government's lack of respect for family values.

Meanwhile, social workers, doctors, university lecturers, municipal councillors, middle- and lower-ranking civil servants and even an alliance of 10 powerful property developers all feel they have fallen victim to the Government's misguided policies.

The administration has become not only more determined but much more dexterous in shaping public opinion. Officials appear to have learned the trick of appealing to the basic instincts of the public to get things done its way.

The threatening estimate of a flood of 1.67 million unwelcome mainlanders was enough to sway the community to accept the Government's solution to the problem, irrespective of the implications on the rule of law.

Earlier, the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance scheme was portrayed as being abused by lazy and irresponsible recipients from the mainland, resulting in overwhelming public support to cut back the subsidies.

Officials have employed similar tactics to play sectorial interests against one another. The social service profession is putting its finishing touches to a comprehensive document on how to revamp the local welfare and service system. Having witnessed how the government publicity machine can steamroll its opposition, however, those involved are now putting their heads together to come up with a counter-media strategy before they unveil their blueprint for reform.

The authorities have indeed come a long way in the art of influencing the public mind. About a decade ago, the findings of regular opinion polls conducted by the Home Affairs Department on government performance were confidential.

The information was primarily used for internal consumption to ensure that the policy-makers had their fingers on the public pulse.

By contrast, the SAR Government has taken a more aggressive approach. Officials are now required to come up with an assessment on public opinions for all major proposals to be tabled at Mr Tung's Executive Council sittings.

Instead of lying back to see how things unfold, it has become a standard practice for administrators to conjure up the right atmosphere before mounting their offensives.

There is nothing wrong in a government seeking to sway public opinion. But in order to ensure that the society can arrive at an informed consensus, the authorities are obliged to present all the information for an intelligent and open debate. This is one of the very foundations of democracy.

However, the present administration has left an impression that it is more eager to manipulate public opinion to push through its preconceived ideas. This is public relations at their worst - known as propaganda.

The Government, which has emerged victorious in its recent opinion wars, may not be aware that it is playing with fire. Before anyone at Lower Albert Road realised, Hong Kong has been degraded into a divisive society clouded with suspicion and hatred.