The Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s speech on September 22, 2015 on “Hong Kongers’ responsibilities and duties to the nation” echoes similar use of these words by some former Asian leaders like Burma’s Ne Win (1962–1988), Indonesia’s Suharto (1967–1998), Pakistan’s Zia Ul Haq (1977–1988), and The Philippine’s Ferdinand Marcos (1965–1986), amongst others, who stressed the importance of responsibilities and duties over the rights of the citizens.

The Phillipines’ Ferdinand Marcos, Indonesia’s Suharto, Burma’s Ne Win.

In the socialist tradition, the reference to “duties and responsibilities” against rights has a much longer and sinister history. Joseph Stalin’s prosecutor Andrey Vyshinsky created an entire jurisprudence in which rights were regarded as decadent bourgeois concepts and the citizens’ relationship with the state was defined in terms of “duties and responsibilities”.

Numerous authorities have by now meticulously documented what that meant to the people of Soviet Russia, as well as to other socialist states. The writings of George Orwell, for instance in Animal Farm and 1984, and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, powerfully record what it meant for the people to live under an ideology where “responsibilities and duties” was the motto. Further, the voluminous writing of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn also vividly narrates what can happen to a people who live under such an ideology.

The Chief Executive of Hong Kong Leung Chung-ying also refers to the debunking of colonialism in this same context. The subtle use of the words, which in first appearance may sound as a condemnation of colonialism, actually connote that an emphasis on rights is a part of the colonial heritage, and should be debunked.

In fact, the global struggle against colonialism was undertaken in order to assert the rights of the people as against the slavery imposed by colonial powers. Debunking colonialism should mean firm assertion of freedom and rights. But we are now in Doublespeak territory.

In a democracy, the greatest responsibility and duty of a citizen should be to pursue and defend freedom. Assertion of rights is one of the highest forms of the expression of freedom. The slaves, when they resisted their master’s demands for carrying out their responsibilities and duties, were thereby regaining their humanity and becoming equal to their masters.

Chief Executive CY Leung.

The heart of the debate on responsibilities and duties as against rights is the very notion of equality of all citizens. From the notion of equality rises the right to seek equality of opportunity. The pursuit of the equality of opportunity is bound with the possibility and the capacity to assert rights. The language of “duties and responsibilities” is often meant to discourage citizens from seeking equality of opportunity.

All of the world’s greatest struggles for freedom have been fought in order to expand rights and to confine the meaning of responsibilities and duties within the overall framework of equal rights for all.

It is therefore not surprising that this propaganda on responsibilities and rights has accompanied the assertion that the Hong Kong’s Chief Executive has a position above all other institutions and the law, as well as the assertion that the separation of powers is not a doctrine that defines the relationships of different branches of government in Hong Kong.

Statue of Themis on the Old Supreme Court Building. Photo: Wikimedia.

In short, what all of these statements are trying to say is that the Chief Executive stands above the law. And, when someone stands above the law and tells others that their lot is to fulfil “duties and responsibilities”, no rational system of legality can stand for very long.

The new rhetoric emerging now is extremely damaging to the very notion of the rule of law. It is law that defines rights, and it is also the law that defines the responsibilities and duties within a society based on the rule of law.

What has assured the stability and the prosperity of Hong Kong so far is that it is a society that is built on the basis of the rule of law. If the rule of law is to be debunked, under the pretext of debunking colonialism, then the very foundation of stability and the prosperity of Hong Kong is being threatened.

What begins simply as a change in rhetoric may soon prove to be far more dangerous.

Basil Fernando

Basil Fernando is a Sri Lanka born jurist, author, poet, & a leading human rights activist in Asia. He currently works as Director of Policy and Programmes at the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission. He has played a pivotal role in linking ordinary citizens striving for human rights principles at the grassroots to institutions working for structural reform at the policy level. Basil Fernando is a Laureate of the Right Livelihood Award, also known as “The Alternative Nobel Prize”. He received the Award in 2014 “for his tireless and outstanding work to support and document the implementation of human rights in Asia.”