Disturbing steps down the road of authoritarian rule

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 May, 2011, 12:00am

What does Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen have in common with the Italian fascist Benito Mussolini and a long line of other miserable dictators? The answer is something called mindset.

Mussolini's famous boast was that he made the trains run on time in Italy (a claim that happens not to be true). He was making the point that those who whinged about the loss of liberty and other 'trivialities' failed to recognise that what mattered was efficiency and economic progress.

Meanwhile, here in Hong Kong, we have a chief executive seemingly mesmerised by bricks and mortar, convinced that what really matters is building bigger and better structures even if it means trampling over the rule of law and brushing aside democratic niceties.

Of course, Tsang is far from being a dictator in the Mussolini mould. He at least pays lip service to the preservation of the values of a society that thrives under the rule of law, but every bone in his body reaches in another direction. His instincts are those of all authoritarians who insist they know best.

Tsang has castigated lawmakers and citizens for 'obstructing progress' by securing a judicial review of the environmental impact study on the new bridge to Macau and Zhuhai. Instead of admitting that there may have been some error in the way the government dealt with this matter, he has chosen to attack those who succeeded in discovering that error and managed to get their views upheld in court.

It is simply not good enough for Tsang to have later explained that he did not mean to attack the judiciary but that his real beef is with those who use the law to challenge government decisions. This is a very dangerous line of attack because it suggests that, either government decisions should somehow be above the law, or, equally bad, that even if these decisions are dubious, citizens should not have the right to challenge them simply because it delays progress.

In the same week, the government introduced a proposal for a new law to eliminate by-elections for directly elected legislators; astonishingly, it was claimed that 'fairness' was being enhanced. How can it be fair to install a legislator who failed to win popular support in place of one who did?

On display is contempt for the burdensome process of elections and an airy disregard for the rule of law. Here, Tsang has simply, and possibly unconsciously, echoed the views of authoritarians down the ages who insist that the only way to get things done is to cast aside obstacles like judges and 'unpredictable' free elections. Hong Kong has, thankfully, not slid fully down the road of authoritarian rule but the administration is taking giant steps in this direction.

Clearly, none of this bothers the rulers in Beijing who are probably, if anything, rather bemused by Tsang's enthusiasm for pushing Hong Kong closer to their one-party-rule model. But when Deng Xiaoping devised the 'one country, two systems' concept, he clearly understood that Hong Kong would work better if its legal system remained intact, and that a high degree of liberty was needed to ensure it could serve as China's window on the world. Companies doing business with China get their contracts signed here and locate their offices here for a reason, and they rely on the differences between the two systems to provide reassurance for their operations. All this can be frittered away in a surprisingly short space of time.

And, for those who still think it's over the top to compare Tsang with Mussolini, don't forget that the functional constituency system, initiated by reactionary colonial officials and embraced by Tsang, is ideologically linked to the election system Mussolini introduced in Italy to curb the powers of the legislature so the Fascist Party could rule without challenge.

Those of us who naively hoped the administration would have sufficient common sense to appreciate that Hong Kong's strength lies not in the height of its buildings but in the resilience of its civil society must now accept this common sense lies elsewhere, and will need to be mobilised to combat the government's worst instincts.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur


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