An open door to bitter irony

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 January, 2011, 12:00am

For those not aware of the wonderful Yiddish word chutzpah, it is explained like this: a young man who has murdered his parents tries to plead mitigation by claiming that, following their deaths, he has become an orphan. This is truly chutzpah. Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, the chief executive, presumably wants to take chutzpah to another level by claiming, as he did this week, that the new government palace - aka, the new government headquarters - was designed around the 'door-is-always-open concept'. At the topping-out ceremony, Tsang said that 'it is not only a distinctive design, but also a reminder to us to be always open-minded, proactive and respective to public opinions'.

Hong Kong's new chutzpah master-in-chief also claimed that 'the open door is standing behind me'. He was presumably suggesting that the new headquarters would, in some way, be open to the public. This is emphatically not the case; the only thing open about this building is the gaping hole in the middle. According to the administration, this hole represents 'the government's transparency and openness'; sometimes it's hard to believe that the government's propaganda department is not fully staffed by satirists.

In reality, the government will continue operations behind heavily guarded barriers; the closest the public will come to this building is a walkway on the palace's periphery. Are memories so short that people have forgotten that one of the first acts of Tsang's predecessor, Tung Chee-hwa, was to erect high railings around the current government headquarters, enclosing an area that used to be open for public transit? Shortly after Tsang was appointed chief executive, I asked him whether he intended to remove these railings. He muttered something about security.

Legislators have been stonewalled when asking about public access to the new government complex, but they only did so half-heartedly anyway, knowing that this administration's concept of 'door always open' means the door opens for one-way traffic, that of officials selectively giving their views to the public.

Not only is the new government headquarters harder to access, but the officials themselves are becoming increasingly invisible. Recently, the secretary for constitutional affairs absented himself from a Legislative Council meeting discussing constitutional change; this was hardly exceptional. At best, minor functionaries are sent along to occasions where discussions of this kind are held in public; at worst, the entire official machinery stays away. As a presenter of an RTHK television public affairs programme, I have learned that it is routine to find that no official will come along to discuss government policy; generally, some hapless flack is instructed to draft a non-committal e-mailed statement. Press conferences with policy secretaries have dwindled in number and are replaced by so-called stand-ups conducted as these grand personages exit meetings and deliver a few statements before scuttling away.

Some people may say it matters not that the government keeps a safe distance from pesky journalists but, for better or worse, these pesky people are the conduit through which the government keeps in touch with the public. The problem for the government is that those doing their job properly will not allow this conduit to become something akin to a megaphone; they strive to subject the government's messages to critical review. The government, for its part, believes that, once it has spoken, there is no need for other voices to be heard.

Yet the administration claims to be in a constant fervour of public consultation - it is still implausibly claiming to be consulting the public on the budget, although it is clear to those who have been involved in the budget-making process that all decisions have been taken.

It is no exaggeration to say that a certain pall has fallen over the entire government machinery, making officials scared to utter anything but the most bland and carefully rehearsed statements. Encounters between senior officials and the public are increasingly stage-managed, descending into almost total farce during Tsang's notorious 'Act Now' campaign when government leaders were so afraid of seeing the public, aside from carefully selected groups, that they ceased announcing their appearances in advance. Maybe they were right to be careful because even when confronted by captive audiences in schools, where articulate criticism was least expected, they had to struggle to explain their position to articulate schoolchildren.

It seems to have been forgotten that when the winning design for the government palace project was announced, it was called 'The Door': the main function of doors is to create an occasionally opening barrier between one place and another. Tsang's fatuous talk of 'open doors' begs the obvious question: why have a door in the first place?

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur