Many years ago I was intrigued for a while by a French writer, Roger Peyrefitte. Mr Peyrefitte is now remembered mainly for his defiant and indeed celebratory account of his own homosexual tastes, although his preferred partners seem to have been rather young by current standards.

But I was too young and innocent for this so it rather passed me by. The thing which interested me in his biographical work was the exploration of a topic rarely explored, the feelings and motivations of those who worked for the Vichy regime which ran France on the Germans’ behalf from 1940 to 1945.

There was a personal explanation for his interest in this. Mr Peyrefitte joined the French diplomatic service after leaving the relevant Ecole as the top scorer of his year, and spent a happy eight years in the Athens Embassy.

This happiness was enhanced by the fact that the Greeks were very relaxed about homosexuality, which was then still illegal in France. Unfortunately, Mr Peyrefitte got into habits which were regarded as scandalous when he returned to work in the HQ in Paris. So he was persuaded to resign from the service in 1940.

In 1943 the Vichy regime invited him back, an invitation which he accepted. As a result in 1945 when that regime was overthrown and replaced he was drummed out again. This did him no serious harm; he devoted the rest of his life to literary pursuits with some success. The French are broad-minded about their literary lions.

Still, he was well placed to attempt an answer to the question: why were people willing to work for a regime which had been imposed by an invading army, was handing dissident fellow-citizens over to the Gestapo, and was sending large numbers of other fellow-citizens on train journeys to concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland from which they did not return.

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Polish priests and civilians, 9 September 1939. Photo: Wikicommons.

He wheeled out the usual suspects. Some people wanted to continue their careers. Some had diplomatic or legal skills for which one’s own country’s government is the only plausible customer. Some, perhaps, genuinely wanted to serve the people, and believed that engagement rather than confrontation would get a better deal from the German occupiers.

After all, services had to be kept up. Nobody blamed train drivers or postmen for continuing with their usual duties.

On the other hand being a government minister in an unsavoury regime still offered the same rewards in prestige and money which had attended pre-war ministers. Power can be addictive and, as Henry Kissinger observed, aphrodisiac.

This was a live issue when I first encountered Mr Peyrefitte. The Germans had invaded a wide variety of countries and rarely had any difficulty (if they tried) in finding locals who would fill government posts and do their bidding. It was suspected that this would have been true of England too if it had come to it.

After the war, the individuals who had “collaborated” were disgraced and, often, shot. The plea that somebody had to keep the machinery working was rarely accepted. They should have known better.

No doubt there were arguments on both sides, and those of us who have never faced a dilemma of this kind should be wary of jumping to the conclusion that we would have identified what now seems with hindsight the right thing to do. But this issue, long forgotten in Europe, has now become an interesting question in Hong Kong, where some people now do face a choice of this kind.

In the 90s and noughties, it was customary for people to explain their willingness to participate in joint activities with the Chinese government as a contribution to progress and an encouragement to the gradual transformation of a one-party dictatorship into something more tolerant and pluralistic.

Under ‘one country two systems’ Hong Kong was not required to import the well-known toxic features of public administration on the mainland, and its leaders were not to blame for abuses of power committed north of the boundary.

Unfortunately, this will no longer wash. It is quite clear that the current regime in Beijing has no interest in progressing in the direction of tolerance and pluralism, still less freedom and democracy. And ‘one country two systems’ has proven a poor protection for local traditions.

2017 one country two system china legco
Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

So what do these people who cooperate on our behalf with the local representatives of despotism tell themselves about what they are doing? Is it possible to disregard the disappearances, the kidnappings, the shootings, the concentration camps, the censorship, the personality cult?

I understand the argument that patriotism requires citizens to support the government, whatever form that government takes, but this is a serious error. “My country right or wrong”, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out, is no better than “my mother, drunk or sober”.

No doubt many of the People’s puppets in Hong Kong are too stupid or ambitious to worry about this, and many of the others prefer not to think about it. Certainly it is not much discussed.

Enter, the other week, Mr Bernard Chan. Mr Chan is the convenor of the Executive Council, a senior post once held by C.Y. Leung. He is, though, rather a contrast with his predecessor.

Mr Chan was born with a gold chopstick in his mouth (granddad founded the Bangkok Bank) and got a real degree from an expensive but otherwise splendid liberal arts college in California. He majored in Studio Arts, an interesting choice for someone who must already have suspected that he would be expected to inherit the family insurance business.

As he did, becoming in due course the insurance industry’s Legco representative and graduating from there to the National People’s Congress and more government advisory bodies than you can shake a stick at.

Bernard Chan
Bernard Chan. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Mr Chan is clearly regarded by our colonial masters as a dependable cog in the imperial machinery. Yet he shares none of the objectionable features so common among his fellow-travellers. His public utterances are rare, but neither stupid nor venomous. He has a column in The Standard, an admirable hobby, but it is not devoted to political matters. It is mostly concerned with cultural activities and things you can do with your family at weekends.

Mr Chan appears to share the view expressed by Nigel Lawson in his monumental (or if you prefer grossly over-long) memoir of his time as Chancellor of the Exchequer: a man who writes about politics is missing out all the important things in life.

So it was nice of him to agree to a TV interview which, according to The Standard’s reporter, strayed into political territory. “Defending criticism that President Xi Jinping has concentrated power in his hands, Chan said it is not easy for a Beijing leader to manage a country of 1.3 billion people.”

And so “If you let all Chinese people behave the way they want to behave, I think China would be a very different place today. So I do think you need some sort of top-down approach. For now, it’s probably the best way for China, to assert their control or a certain direction from the top.”

Happily, Mr Chan did not wish to see this extended to Hong Kong. But this, of course, raises the question: if allowing Chinese people in other places “to behave the way they want to behave” does not lead to dire consequences, why should it be a bad thing in China?

Mr Chan seems to have been lucky that his explanation did not attract as much attention as a rather similar remark from Jackie Chan a few years ago. It is not for me to protest on Chinese people’s behalf, but quite a lot of them were offended by the implication that they suffered from some genetic quirk which made them unfit for self-rule.

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Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Xi Jinping in Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

Clearly, apologists for the Xi regime need a high degree of proficiency in the art of euphemism. There are a variety of ways of describing the brutal and authoritarian way in which China is governed, and “a certain direction from the top” doesn’t really capture the flavour fully.

But you have to wonder whether this really works inside the head of the person concerned. Are there moments of doubt at night, as in this song?

This is not an issue for the civil service in general. It really concerns those at some high level, though the responsibility Plimsoll Line comes, I fear, well below the Exco level.

Civil servants further down the pyramid of power can comfort themselves with the thought that after all the trains still have to be driven, the post has to be delivered, and those who fulfil such practical needs are genuinely serving the people. Which some of them do very well.

My last official encounter with the civil service followed a minor accident on a hiking trail last year. I was passed with much kindness and efficiency from the Agriculture and Fisheries Department (country park rangers) to the Fire Services (ambulance) who delivered me to the Medical and Health people (Nethersole Hospital).

I know some people have had bad experiences in our over-burdened public hospitals but mine was entirely comparable with the highest international standards. See doctor, have  X-ray, see doctor with specialist, painful but quick procedure (I had dislocated a finger), X-ray to see if procedure had worked and final discussion of same with doctor took about two hours and cost nothing.

There is usually a small charge for Accident and Emergency visits in Hong Kong but the hospital’s alert computer spotted that as the spouse of a retired civil servant I was entitled to a freebie, which surprised both of us.

So I think those who heal the sick, teach the young, sweep the streets and do other useful things have no need to be ashamed of the fact that somewhere up in the administrative stratosphere their bosses are taking orders from the Liaison Office.

The China Liaison Office.
The China Liaison Office. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

What, on the other hand, are we to make of, for example, Carrie Lam’s insistence that Hong Kong’s lack of an extradition agreement with China has nothing to do with the fact that confidence in the mainland’s legal system (if you believe it has anything worth calling a legal system) is not high?

Is there an alternative explanation? Was it down to a moment of absent-mindedness, a translation glitch in the Joint Liaison Committee, a misprint? “I said China, not Ghana, you fool. Oh, never mind, It’s too late to change it now…”

Why do they keep telling us that ‘one country, two systems’ has been implemented “flawlessly”? After all, even people who think that on the whole things have not gone badly would hardly put it so strongly.

It may be that this is trotted out simply on the parrot basis that it is the Beijing Foreign Office spokesman’s “line to take”.

But I suspect there is a deeper motive. If Hong Kong is still separate then those who roost in the legislative loft can still claim that what happens here has nothing to do with what happens there, and vice versa. Concentration camps? Nothing to do with us.

Which for the time being is probably OK. One must hope, though, that these people are giving some thought to where their limits are. The future is, to misquote Shakespeare, an “undiscovered country from which no traveller returns”. We do not know what is in store for us.

carrie lam liar
A depiction of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam (L) is displayed as protesters take part in the annual New Year’s Day pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong on January 1, 2018. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP.

So it is a good idea to work out where your limits are, before you find you have been dragged over them without noticing it.

If you are still in the government’s team, we must suppose you are OK with tear gas. What about live rounds? Dissidents jailed on antique legal charges? Well, they’re criminals. Similar people spirited across the border to star on Confessiontube? What are you going to do if there’s blood on the street? Keep calm and Carrie on?

I felt a frisson of unease at a report in the Hong Kong Standard the other day about an accident in which a box of teargas fell out of the back of a Police Emergency Unit van. The newspaper reported that the van also contained sundry crowd control implements in case of need, including submachine guns. Machine guns?

Kong Tsung-gan‘s new collection of essays – narrative, journalistic, documentary, analytical, polemical, and philosophical – trace the fast-paced, often bewildering developments in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. As Long As There Is Resistance, There Is Hope is available exclusively through HKFP with a min. HK$200 donation. Thanks to the kindness of the author, 100 per cent of your payment will go to HKFP’s critical 2019 #PressForFreedom Funding Drive.

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Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.