Monkeying around with city politics

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 July, 2011, 12:00am


We are reading more and more about the election of Hong Kong's next chief executive. This is an election of the most peculiar kind; only a tiny few of the city's seven million residents are eligible to vote. Less than nine months to the election, nobody has yet come forward to declare his or her interest.

All we have is a hint here and there, yet everybody seems to know who the candidates are. They're all cut from the same political cloth - with only subtle differences setting them apart.

For those who think this is strange, here is a bit of traditional wisdom, courtesy of the philosopher Zhuang Zi from around the 4th century BC: There's an old man who loves raising monkeys. He feeds them with chestnuts. But as the group grows, the old man needs to control the budget. Knowing how fickle and unruly his subjects are, he comes up with a cunning plan.

He calls a meeting and announces that each monkey from now on will get three chestnuts in the morning and four at night. The monkeys are angry and threaten to rebel. The old man - after appearing to struggle - then announces that after taking public opinion into consideration, he will amend the plan. The monkeys can instead choose to have four chestnuts in the morning and three at night.

The decision is met with wild celebrations and acceptance - another triumph of democracy.

The story has turned into the Chinese idiom chaosan musi - a derogatory phrase to describe people's fickleness.

But the true teaching here, we think, applies to governance: sometimes giving your subjects an illusion of free choices is almost all it takes to make them happy. After 24 centuries, politics is still the old monkey business.