Losing our way in the struggle to keep up
Like people, there are communities that are overconfident and those that are desperately in need of greater self-esteem. Both types have serious drawbacks. Americans are overwhelmingly in the first category. That's why, for example, in the current acrimonious debate over health care reforms, US congressional studies did not bother to produce a single comparative study on other nations' health care systems.
We in Hong Kong are the polar opposite. From an arts hub to emission standards, whether it is about reforming child protection laws or revising taxi fares, our first reaction is to check out how other people do it first. A favourite line from bureaucrats is that whatever they are doing - and is being questioned - meets international standards, which must, therefore, make everything alright. There seems to be a profound cultural and intellectual insecurity about who we are and how we do things.
Years ago, when the then-chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, first became serious about reforming our health services, he hired a Harvard professor to come up with a master plan. Since then, almost every serious discussion and study has a long chapter on other countries' health care systems. Mind you, such curiosity about other people has some advantages - such as endless junket trips at taxpayers' expense.
So, in a similar vein, eight of our lawmakers have hopped on a plane this week to central Europe. Their 11-day mission - at the cost of HK$490,000 - is to visit the Czech Republic, Croatia and Hungary, and study their transition to democracy and learn about their experience. Most of the team members belong to the pan-democratic camp, but there are also Ip Kwok-him, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, lawyer Paul Tse Wai-chun and Timothy Fok Tsun-ting, the city's closest thing to a sports tsar. Some in the group had enough sense to worry about how the high expenses might be perceived and offered to travel in economy class. But others insisted they needed to stay fresh for all those long meetings about democracy ahead of them, and opted to travel in business. Faced with such a weighty subject, who can blame them for trying to keep themselves mentally alert? And Fok, ageing son of a late tycoon, obviously could not survive a long-haul flight in 'cattle class'.
Still, one wonders what kind of statement they are making with such a trip. That they haven't a clue about democracy and need to sit at the feet of real democrats? Or that they seek validation on what they have been doing from other people and countries that have broken free from totalitarianism?
Whatever it is, our lawmakers, of course, see nothing wrong with that. And perhaps they are right. It's always good to try to learn from other people. But, in a democracy or not, people like to feel good about themselves, rather than being told they are not good enough or are second class. That was the persistent negative message drummed into us when we were a colony. This is what bureaucrats, mandarins, business leaders and legislators are saying about us every time they take a trip aboard before deciding what and how they need to proceed with something of public interest.
That we have enjoyed wealth, stability and liberty without full democracy is surely worth explaining. Perhaps we are in a transition to a genuine democratic future. But our fate is tied with the mainland. The momentous changes that have taken place there in the past three decades have, for better or worse, transformed global relationships and will surely determine our future.
If the pan-democrats would spend more time studying the mainland and less time being political philistines by flying around the world, they may do all of us a favour. If we want to plot our democratic future with greater self-confidence, we might spend less time seeking outside assurances and more time looking inward - and understand ourselves on our own terms.
Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post