Yaan earthquake

We do love our country, but we also love our money

Reluctance to donate to earthquake fund is not a lack of patriotism, more a fear of corruption

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 April, 2013, 4:59am

The devastating earthquake that hit Sichuan less than a fortnight ago might have offered an interesting answer to the ongoing debate over the definition of "love your country, love Hong Kong".

For a city renowned for its capitalism, money is perhaps the best measurement of love.

Over the past week, Hongkongers' heartstrings have been tugged by the sum of HK$100 million - an amount not many people will earn in their entire lifetime.

It is also the sum the government intended to donate to the Sichuan municipal government for emergency relief, and a sum that equates to just 1 per cent of the city's contribution to Sichuan's reconstruction project five years ago. To donate or not to donate, that is the question.

Hong Kong people are well known for their generosity to their mainland compatriots. In times of disaster and crisis over the past two decades, not once did they hesitate to loosen their purse strings. The mega donation of HK$10 billion in 2008 marked the height of such generosity. Anyone could easily conclude there are no questions about Hongkongers' patriotism. But five years is enough time for love to fade. According to a University of Hong Kong public opinion programme study, Hongkongers' trust in the central government hit 58 per cent in June 2008, but fell steadily to only 37 per cent two months ago.

Hong Kong people are pragmatic. They expect their money will go to a deserving cause. While municipal governments on the mainland are not known for their high standards of transparency or accountability, it is a generally held opinion that part - if not all - of the donation would fall into the hands of corrupt officials.

It is no coincidence that more than HK$7 million has been donated to support the striking dock workers, while the proposed HK$100 million donation for Sichuan remained locked by a Legislative Council debate.

But the reluctance to donate should not be misread as purely a result of cross-border tension. The sentiment was shared by many mainlanders.

"The mainland government does not lack money. All it lacks is system," remarked Bruce Lui Ping-kuen, a veteran mainland-based Hong Kong journalist. His view was shared by mainland weibo (microblog) users.

Perhaps the Hong Kong government is as guilty as any other authority.

The failure of the Hong Kong government to sense the changing public sentiment exposed the distance between the government and its people.

Finally, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's vigorous attempt to close the gap between the city and the mainland backfired due to public mistrust.

When the Legislative Council's special finance committee resumes on Friday, the government will probably have secured enough votes for the funding. But it could take longer to rebuild the love than it will an earthquake-hit zone.