Demolishing our barriers to change

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 February, 2007, 12:00am

Sometimes it seems as though things will never change and we will remain stuck with an unsatisfactory state of affairs. Yet the Lunar New Year is just around the corner, and everyone is busy rushing around delivering wishes of good fortune for the coming year.

The trouble is that, while these wishes are quite genuine, many people have come to accept the unacceptable as a way of life. This seems to be particularly strong in the realm of political life. Perhaps it's better described as social life, because politics is essentially about the organisation of societies: the poor, deluded souls who declare that politics has nothing to do with them presumably mean that they somehow wish to live outside society.

Hong Kong is a curious place. Politics is applied with a light hand, but it also exerts a firm grip on the development of society. This contrasts with the heavy hand of politics across the border, where people believe that because an authoritarian system prevails today, it will last forever - or, at the very least, for their entire life.

Anyone who believes this should spend a couple of hours watching a quite extraordinary film from Germany, The Lives of Others, now showing in Hong Kong cinemas. This is a dark film which chillingly depicts the realities of life in the oppressive society of the old East Germany, where the secret police had such power that it seemed futile to even contemplate a challenge.

The film centres on the lives of a famous playwright and his wife, who come under surveillance when she refuses to provide sexual services for a government minister. The secret police officer in charge of the surveillance ends up sympathising with his victims, and helps them. His assistance cannot be proved, but he is nevertheless demoted and condemned to a lifetime of drudgery. His boss warns him that this penalty will last the remainder of his working life; there is no hope of reprieve.

Yet politics - the very force that led to the oppression of East Germans - becomes the means of making that threat hollow. Within five years, the Berlin Wall is torn down, the old East Germany is dismantled and a whole range of new possibilities arise. As former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung famously said: 'Nothing in human history is permanent.' His life is a testimony to the truth of that statement, as he travelled from a prison cell and political isolation to the nation's highest post.

Here in Hong Kong we are thankfully spared the extremes of a police state, but we seem to be gripped by a sense of paralysis. Every time suggestions are made to change the political system to produce a more democratic form of government, we are told that it cannot be done. That, we're told, is because either the very sophisticated people of Hong Kong are not ready for change or, even if they are ready, change is presented as a challenge to the central authorities and is therefore seen as illegitimate.

No one seriously believes that the current system is ideal, and even opponents pretend to be committed to the idea of political reform. But they still resort to the tired old argument that nothing can be done because change is not a viable option.

What they are really saying is that the people of Hong Kong cannot be trusted to govern themselves. And they have the absolute cheek to suggest that, just because other successful democracies might be able to trust their citizens, this does not apply to Chinese people: they are said to have some special form of genetic disability in this regard that sets them apart from the rest of the world.

Can this really be true? The reality is that changing political systems can be risky, but stagnation is an infinitely greater risk. If the Berlin Wall could crumble so easily, surely our own little concrete barriers to change can also be demolished. All we need is the confidence to allow this to happen. What better time of year could there be for expressing this confidence?

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur