The central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong. Photo: AP
by Wee Kek Koon
by Wee Kek Koon

The Hong Kong government has been accused of ‘calling a deer a horse’ – but where did the expression originate?

  • The ancient Chinese expression was used by pro-democracy legislators in a letter to Chief Executive Carrie Lam
  • It recalls an episode from more than 2,000 years ago and refers to the deliberate peddling of a falsehood

Several weeks ago, Beijing’s liaison office and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office criticised Hong Kong’s opposition lawmakers for their delaying tactics in the Legislative Council. The two agencies were roundly denounced by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp for interfering in the SAR’s internal affairs, in violation of the Basic Law.

Both offices refuted the charge, insisting that it should not be seen as interference. The Hong Kong government waded into the dispute and further muddied the waters, releasing a series of poorly thought-out statements within a few hours, the first partially contradicting the central government’s agencies and the final version toeing the line.

At the centre of the controversy is whether the two Beijing agencies are covered by Article 22 of the Basic Law, which states no mainland departments may interfere in affairs that Hong Kong administers autonomously in accordance with the city’s mini constitution. Both claim they are not governed by this provision. After embarrassing vacillation, the Hong Kong government concurred.
In response to this perceived readiness to bend to the will of Beijing’s representatives, 22 pro-democracy politicians issued a joint statement on April 19, castigating Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor for “betraying Hong Kong”. They said: “[The Hong Kong government] called a deer a horse and sank down on its knees before Beijing’s liaison office.”
Pro-democracy lawmakers released a statement in which they accused Hong Kong’s government of “calling a deer a horse”. Photo: SCMP/ K.Y. Cheng

The idiom “calling a deer a horse” (zhi lu wei ma) invokes an episode that occurred in 207BC. The first emperor of the Qin dynasty, who unified China into an empire, had died three years before. His son and successor, the sybaritic second emperor, was under the thumb of his powerful and influential chancellor, Zhao Gao.

That year, Zhao was planning to mount a coup but he was uncertain about potential opposition from other government officials. To test the waters, he had a deer led into the audience hall and presented it to the emperor as a gift, announcing, “This is a horse.”

The emperor laughed and said, “Surely you are mistaken, calling a deer a horse!” He turned to his attendants and officials to solicit their agreement. In this taxonomic tug of war between emperor and chancellor, there was no contest. The more shameless courtiers immediately echoed Zhao’s assertion the deer standing before them was indeed a horse, while the more upright officials, fearful they would face Zhao’s retribution, remained silent.

Thereafter, the barefaced peddling of falsehoods was referred to as “calling a deer a horse”.

In recounting this story, it is not my intention to equate contemporary persons or entities with Zhao Gao, the second emperor or the officials. I am merely explaining the saying and how it came to be.

This new front in the battlefield of Hong Kong politics seems set to fuel the unrest that has turned the city upside down since last June, and which Covid-19 has prevented from boiling over. When the lid eventually flies off, we shall see many more deer being called horses by the fanatic “cow demons and snake spirits” (niugui sheshen) on both sides of the political divide.