Hu's stunt backfired due to a lack of trust
An American president once famously said that you cannot fool all of the people all the time. A similar Chinese saying goes: '[One can] fool people for a while, but nobody can fool people all the time.' The nation's leaders might reflect on that in the wake of a publicity exercise involving President Hu Jintao that backfired embarrassingly.
A nationally publicised visit by the nation's leader to a single mother and her daughter in their heavily subsidised government flat was meant to demonstrate the government's concern for the poor and needy. Instead, it sparked resentment online amid unaffordable property prices and speculation that it was faked. Many found it hard to believe that the authorities were charging the woman only 77 yuan (HK$90) a month rent for a 45 square metre flat when similar homes in Beijing cost at least 2,000 yuan a month. Except that it was all true.
The woman pays five per cent of the rent of around 1,500 yuan a month, with the rest paid by government subsidy. Officials therefore have nothing to account for - except that people are willing to believe that their leaders would lend themselves to a dishonest publicity stunt. That ought to be a worry. How much of what the authorities say about anything is taken with a grain of salt? It is hard to imagine that if Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen visited the poor and spoke of welfare aid, the internet would run hot with disbelief. We trust him not to lie to us.
The injustice to Hu in this case can only be put down to a lack of trust that points to a credibility gulf between government and the governed. Trust is a key issue on the mainland - from tainted food to official pronouncements that are pored over for accuracy. It is the price of a systemic habit of opacity, misinformation and fudging the truth, compounded by too much corruption and maladministration. It is a warning sign that microbloggers made no exception for the office of president in this case. This shows how much work the authorities have to do if they are serious about bridging the gap. They could start by offering more openness and transparency.