Distrust grows as the truth is sidestepped

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

Can a government that lies and breaks promises about the smaller things be trusted to tell the truth about the bigger things? This question is posed with increasing frequency as the Hong Kong government totters towards a voyage into the realms of what is politely described as mendacity.

This week, for example, the management of the Fairview Park housing estate unearthed a letter sent nine years ago by officials promising to ban large trucks from a road in the estate. That issue has raised passions following the recent death of a 12-year-old boy hit by a container truck there. In the considerable time since the letter was despatched, no action has been taken and the government appears to have forgotten or is in denial over its broken promise.

Then there is the matter of the broken promises to commercial tenants of public housing estates before the malls and car parks were privatised. They were assured, they claim, that their leases would be renewed, which gave them the confidence to invest in their commercial outlets - only to see those assurances broken and a denial of any commitment when lease- renewal time came around. Now the premises are owned by the increasingly notorious Link Management company: it apparently feels free to detach itself from government commitments now that its shares have been sold on the stock market.

These two examples relate to broken promises directly affecting public safety and commercial interests, but there are other examples of flagrant mendacity in public policy matters. When, for example, the government said that it would be making a bid to host the Beijing Olympic Games equestrian events, officials said no public money would be spent on the venture because the Jockey Club would fund it. Now we know that the Jockey Club might get effective repayment in kind for its HK$800 million expenditure through the grant of extra land at a knockdown price. And we have since learned that the government will be paying HK$9 million in compensation to athletes for the loss of their training facilities and about HK$8 million to pay a retired official for overseeing the event. Maybe these sums are regarded as trifling to bureaucrats - who are contemplating spending billions on luxurious accommodation for themselves at the new government headquarters - but they cannot be interpreted as meaning 'no public money'.

While it is sometimes possible to pinpoint direct government lies, it is far more difficult to find what might be described as a smoking gun to expose half-truths and other pieces of official mendacity. Last weekend, for example, the police banned a protest rally against the chief executive election, in Victoria Park, on the grounds that night protests posed a danger to public safety. Yet many nighttime protests have been permitted in the past. Maybe there was some special reason for this ban, but the suspicion lingers that something less than the full truth was being told.

Further, there is a string of what might be called the sort of political lies uttered with seeming sincerity by all governments, and often shrugged off as being part of the game. As the writer George Orwell said, political language 'is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of respectability to pure wind'. It is in this context that we can better understand the 'double-speak' made famous by Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, where a ministry of truth supervises the propagation of lies and so on. In Hong Kong's suburban version of politics, we have a government establishing a consultation process on constitutional development with the more or less transparent aim of suppressing the development of constitutional development.

It is always hard to be sure whether government officials believe their own lies or simply imagine that they will never be caught out. They are notorious for their arrogance in assuming that the public will not notice their mendacity or, even if they do, that it will soon be forgotten. But people remember, and as they do so their trust in government erodes. Sometimes it is the small things that prompt this diminution of trust but, as evidence of double-dealing mounts, the distrust snowballs.

Stephen Vines, a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur, is a member of the Civic Party