Hong Kong youth shouldn’t have to take marching orders from the liaison office
Mike Rowse says that the dispute over Chinese-style goose-stepping and Western arm-swinging may look trivial, but central government interference in local affairs in defiance of the Basic Law is anything but
When news first came out that the central government’s liaison office was trying to persuade uniformed civilian organisations here to march in the mainland style, reaction varied. The first thought in nearly everyone’s mind must have been sheer astonishment that senior officials have nothing more important to do.
One commentator in this newspaper said (correctly) that if this was an attempt by the mainland to win the hearts and minds of Hong Kong’s young people, it would fail. A commentator in another media outlet took the opportunity, in a light-hearted way, to research different marching styles through the ages. In response on social media, there was inevitably a reference to one of the most famous comedy sketches of all time: the Monty Python episode where John Cleese played the part of an official from the Ministry of Silly Walks.
I must admit that was my first reaction too, but after I thought more deeply, I started to worry. The saga allegedly began when the head of the Hong Kong Army Cadets Association, Bunny Chan Chung-bun, approached some other youth organisations whose activities include parades and marching. He is said to have asked them to consider adopting the goose-stepping style followed by countries including China, and cease to use the “arms swinging” method used by most Western countries (Chan has denied making any such approach).
Whatever the origins, the subject was definitely pursued at a meeting in the liaison office in early February, attended by Youth Department director general Chen Lin. Some organisations seem willing to go along, others are strongly resisting.
When I think back to the run-up to the handover in 1997, and the 20 years since, I cannot recall anyone raising such a trivial subject before. We have had a number of well-publicised furores over matters such as national security legislation, national education, political reform and, most recently, the immigration co-location arrangements at the West Kowloon terminus of the high-speed rail network.
Local people are free to agree or disagree with what has been proposed directly by the central government or indirectly by the special administrative region government, but I have always tried to see both sides of the argument before forming a final view.
On national security, for example, I entirely agree that we should have a set of clear modern laws covering treason, subversion and so on. It is not only our obligation to do so under Article 23 of the Basic Law, it is common sense and something every modern society has. And I have confidence that our legislators will do a good job balancing security needs with individual rights. Proper legislation would protect our freedom, not undermine it.
On national education, there is nothing wrong with children learning at school about the history of their country. At the same time, preparation of the teaching materials must be handled carefully to ensure that the course is about what actually happened rather than propaganda from one particular perspective.
Making those who maintain a particular stance responsible for the preparation of the course materials was bound to create suspicion. This matter was mishandled last time, but we can and should do better.
I was very disappointed by the political reform package: it totally ignored all the many worthy and moderate suggestions for improving Legislative Council arrangements and advanced only ultra-cautious proposals for election of the chief executive. I remain convinced there was a deal there to be done, but nobody at the time seemed interested in compromise.
I recap these episodes to make a point. They were all very important, and the central government and liaison office had legitimate interest in them. But I cannot for the life of me see a role for either of those bodies in deciding a matter as minor as how our Scouts conduct their parades.
Also, the liaison office directly approached the organisations and called them to a meeting on its premises. Why not raise the point with the SAR government first? These two aspects – deep involvement in a clearly local issue, and willingness to act directly – taken together represent a clear breach of the “one country, two systems” principle and contradict several articles of the Basic Law.
What can we expect next? Will Beijing now approach the SAR government and propose a top-down approach to new marching arrangements, starting with the police force? I would advise resistance to any such approach. Relations between the force and our young people are still fragile. They are not going to be improved by having the men and women drill like storm troopers, which would give foreign investors serious heebie-jeebies.
This might be a good time for the chief executive to remind the liaison office to stay out of local affairs. One Ministry of Silly Walks is surely enough.
Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. email@example.com