Photos breach society's moral threshold
The scandal surrounding the sex photos of local movie and pop stars circulating on the internet has been dominating the front page of mainstream Chinese newspapers and gossip magazines for weeks now, with no signs of abating. Even for this gossip-fuelled city, that is quite rare; it must have touched a very sensitive nerve among people.
So far, despite all the fanfare from the local police, no one has been successfully prosecuted.
Although stealing information from computers and uploading it to the internet is obviously a crime, and the legal angles have been thoroughly explored by both the police and pundits, the crux of the matter is not about who might or might not be breaking the law.
The most important point in the saga is not any violation of the penal code, which can easily be dealt with without controversy. It is about whether the moral code of the mainstream population has been breached. On the face of it, people in Hong Kong are westernised to the point of subscribing to permissive values. We treasure freedom to the extent that, as long as no one is hurt, everyone is entitled to do whatever he or she pleases.
We are tolerant of somewhat kinky sexual activities, and treasure the freedom to view violent and sexual material through movies, art, literature and on the internet. There is complete secularism, and the power of religion over our daily life seems almost nonexistent. These features, according to Wikipedia, are characteristics of 'an extreme of permissiveness'.
But judging from the mainstream reaction to the photo scandal, people are, on the whole, quite shocked and annoyed.
Public pressure has been so intense that the young man involved in the saga, Edison Chen Koon-hei, has apologised and said he will step away from the Hong Kong entertainment industry, while one female star - Gillian Chung Yan-tung - has come out to apologise for her naivety.
Few have come out to condemn these artists; doing so would be deemed politically incorrect in a liberal, cosmopolitan city. But even fewer seem to condone what they do both in public and private.
Education groups, in particular, have said they will use this saga in classes as an object lesson.
We do not admit that we have a moral code, but in fact, each one of us does. Mainstream society also has an implicit set of moral codes, and somehow we all know them. Obviously, what these artists did is out of step with the moral standards of the mainstream Hong Kong Chinese population, permissive or otherwise.
This is the basic cause of the ongoing uproar. In such a liberal atmosphere, however, an upfront declaration about morality and moral standards would sound politically incorrect.
No one - whether a religious leader, an educationist or a government official - dares to openly utter such words. It is this duplicity which has created the current disorientation. If we clearly differentiate between what is legal and what is moral, what belongs to individual rights and what lies in the realm of moral responsibility, these feelings of disorientation can easily be dealt with.
Privacy should be protected, sex with minors should be punished and internet crimes should be stopped. We have no argument with this.
But it does not prevent us from condemning sexual promiscuity and indulgence, and giving our younger generation a more balanced sex education that includes the concepts of responsibility and commitment.
If, instead, we hide our little moral code inside the closet, as if it were a crime, isn't that another kind of inhibition? I am sure that any true-blue believer in liberalism and even permissiveness would not object to this line of thinking.
Lau Nai-keung is a Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference delegate