Pro-independence activists Yau Wai-ching (left) and Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang. Photo: Reuters
Perry Lam
Perry Lam

Barred Hong Kong lawmakers overstepped the mark and offended the public’s sense of decency

American history shows that politicians who disgust the people can expect a rapid fall from grace

According to Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, a sense of fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth. He may be right. But if you decide to go into politics, you have no choice but to develop that sense. It is a political virtue that one day may save your ass as well as your job.

That, in short, is the object lesson of the oath-taking saga that resulted in two pro-independence lawmakers being kicked out of the Legislative Council.

Hong Kong people are not known for their accommodation to the wishes of the Chinese government.

While they might find Beijing’s action high-handed and self-serving, they were not sorry to see the two removed from the legislature
So why hasn’t Beijing’s interpretation of Article 104 of the Basic Law making it punishable by disqualification if oaths are not taken accurately and solemnly sparked a political crisis? If a crackdown on unlicensed street hawkers was enough to incite protesters to throw trash bins and glass bottles at the police, what could have made them accept the throwing out of two duly elected legislators without a fight? In the eyes of Hongkongers, is democracy really no match for their beloved fishballs?
The answer, I guess, is simple. By using the “f” word to distort “republic” in the nation’s name and by deliberately mispronouncing China as “Chee-na”, Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching violated most Hong Kong people’s sense of decency. While they might find Beijing’s action high-handed and self-serving, they were not sorry to see the two removed from the legislature. They might even feel a sense of justice.

We are so used to taking a cynical, Machiavellian view of power that we have seriously underestimated decency as a political virtue. Politics, we are told time and again, is not a game for straight arrows. That is not always true. The unscrupulous Donald Trump may have won the top job in the US, but recent American history still holds valuable lessons on how public disgust can change the course of events.

Bully, witch-hunter and one of the most iconic figures of the cold war, Senator Joseph McCarthy used trumped-up, fabricated charges of communism, communist sympathies, disloyalty and sex crimes to attack his enemies inside and outside of government. What precipitated his downfall was a highly publicised appeal to the American people’s sense of decency he had so unthinkingly and violently offended.

Joseph Welch was the chief counsel for the United States Army while it was under investigation for communist activities by McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

At one of the subcommittee hearings in June 1954, as McCarthy deployed his usual tactic to assassinate characters, spread rumours and make false accusations, Welch stopped him and said to him in front of a nationwide television audience: “Senator, you’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

That marked the beginning of the end of McCarthy’s political career. A disgusted, morally outraged public decided that enough was enough. The senator’s support and popularity plummeted. Six months later, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy. The disgraced, suddenly diminished senator slipped further into alcoholism and died less than three years later.

Perry Lam is a local cultural critic

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: There is no mercy for those politicians who offend public decency