There are two types of apologies, one involves a sincere intention to do better and the other can simply be described as being a politician’s apology, which bears little resemblance to real regret or remorse.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, has shown some, well, actually a lot of failures as a political leader but when it comes to political apologies she is up there with the best.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam. File photo:

Following the debacle surrounding the age reduction for elderly welfare benefits and the shambles over the way a cash handout for low-income people was handled she admitted that “we could have done better.” A day later Mrs Lam even talked about the need to govern with humility and empathy.

Maybe she was referring to the “empathy” she demonstrated when telling the jobless elderly poor that there was no reason why they should not work because she herself, at the age of 61, was working more than ten hours every day.

Somewhere in all this, the Chief Executive seemed to be saying that her government had entirely misjudged public opinion when it comes to the elderly poor but there was no admission of fault or recognition that the policies themselves were wrong. At worst, according to Mrs Lam, it was perhaps the case that the government had not explained itself too clearly and that public perceptions were misguided.

Elderly people
File photo: GovHK.

So there we have it, the real culprits have been identified, they are, dear reader, you and me. We just don’t understand these complex things.

Mrs Lam brings to mind the famous lines from the German writer Berthold Brecht who was reflecting on the ways that the Communist Party went about its business when it still ruled large parts of Europe…

Some party hack decreed that the people had lost the government’s confidence and could only regain it with redoubled effort. If that is the case, would it not be simpler if the government simply dissolved the people. And elected another?

Herr Brecht is long gone but his satirical spirit lives on in Tamar where an arrogant bunch of hacks run a government that is quite impervious to criticism, believes that the purpose of a consultation is to listen only to those who will echo its own views, and will never admit to fault.

It is in this spirit that the government has decreed it will make no change in its policies towards the elderly and as far as handing out money goes, well, if only people would wait a bit longer, the fine folk who are dishing out the cash will get around to paying them.

Legislative Council
Photo: LegCo.

These are pretty squalid examples of how an arrogant government behaves but more telling, if less dramatic, is the government’s attitude towards changing the cross-harbour tunnel pricing system. The plan cobbled together by the hapless Transport Department bureaucrats (no doubt fresh from their triumphs in handling MTR affairs) calls for a doubling of fees at the Central cross-harbour tunnel, a close to doubling of fees at the Eastern tunnel and a fee reduction at the very underused Western tunnel, which would still make it significantly more expensive than the other tunnels.

As the government has pointed out, it “only” controls two of these tunnels while the Western crossing remains in private hands and changes to its operation require negotiation. Nonetheless, the government has a strong negotiating position which could be used if there is a will to use it. A better system surely would be to have all tunnels equally priced so that traffic would be more evenly distributed; maybe there is another and even better idea but the government has pronounced and is in no mood to listen to other ideas.

Listening is not what this government does, on the contrary, the Chief Executive has made clear that unless its plans are approved by the legislature there is no question of contemplating changes and the tunnel fee plan will simply be withdrawn. This is arrogance 101.

cross harbour tunnel hong kong
Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Hong Kong’s arrogant bureaucrats believe that they possess all the wisdom and that even legislators, who are supposed to be part of the decision-making process, have little to contribute.

However, under Hong Kong’s highly flawed governmental system only the legislature is even vaguely accountable to the people by way of elections. It is hardly up to the job as it is stuffed with non-elected members and prevented from initiating legislation without government approval but, as matters stand, it remains the best way of calling the government to account.

Unlike the legislators, Mrs Lam has nothing resembling a public mandate (unless you seriously believe that an electorate compromised of 1,200 voters can even vaguely be described as democratic). This should mean that the Chief Executive and her underlings have compelling reasons to be more sensitive to public opinion and to go out of their way to accommodate a broader spectrum of views.

Is that going to happen? As we enter the Year of the Pig only one prediction is guaranteed: pigs won’t fly.

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship