Our Chief Executive’s biggest wish for 2021 is for harmony, she tells Bernard Chan. (Strangely, the Chinese edition of RTHK’s news focuses not on harmony but on her defence of the National Security Law).
The word “harmony” brings to mind a group of violinists, cellists, flautists and the like being brought together under a conductor to produce a sound which is greater than the sum of its parts. And if this is what Carrie Lam has in mind, and the English is a bad translation, for a society to be acting in harmony is a laudable wish. The bone I wish to pick is not the outcome but the means of getting there. Let me quote the relevant part:
Mrs Lam said that if there were fewer conflicts in society, the government will be able to do more for the people.
“Every time there are quarrels in society, in fact people pay a hefty price,” Lam said.
“That is why for 2021, my biggest hope is for society to have harmony. So that the SAR government, and other public bodies, have more room to do concrete things for Hong Kong.”
Let’s start with the first of these assertions. The post-handover government has had 23 years to “do more for the people.” It has abjectly failed. Government inaction is not the only thing that has led to conflicts in society but those conflicts have been aggravated by a failure of government.
Take housing policy. Hong Kong is far from unique in having more people than there are decent and affordable homes. But the fact that over half of its people are stuck in public housing, with no realistic prospect of ever being able to live in a more than a 350 square foot rented concrete box, is directly attributable to the government’s land policy.
I have previously argued that Hong Kong is the world’s largest property development company; the only thing that has changed since I wrote that piece is that the government is careering ahead with an artificial island that won’t change a thing for at least 15 years. That’s half a generation condemned to live in sub-standard and cramped housing.
And they are the lucky ones: public housing is, for all its faults, inexpensive. The waiting list for public housing is not shrinking and those who are on it must pay market rent for cage beds and coffin homes at $3,000-$4,000 per month. That isn’t much to most Hong Kong Free Press readers, but there is little left to save, let alone to invest, when you’re a security guard or a young person starting your career on $6,000 a month.
Take wealth distribution. Hong Kong has always spread its wealth unevenly, but there used to be the hope that those who worked hard and had some ideas could claw their way upwards. The last 23 years have seen the tanking of social mobility in Hong Kong. If you are born in public housing, you will almost certainly die there.
I could go on: care for the elderly, education, public health, the government’s complete inability – or disinterest – to design a city for the 85 per cent who do not own a car or drive. But the point is this: social injustice is the underlying cause of the conflicts in Hong Kong’s society, and the government has shown no interest in rectifying it. Rather than government by the people for the people, it’s been government by the puppets for the oligarchs.
And here we come to her second statement, which can as easily be read as a threat as an assertion: “If you don’t suck it up, we’ll make you pay.” This is borne out by the third quoted line, which says the same basic thing. And the thing is, the people did harmoniously suck it up for the better part of two decades and it got them nowhere.
But let’s set aside the cart-before-horseness of the logic. Representative government in Hong Kong failed by design. Without the power of appropriations, there was never more to LegCo than LegCo proposes, government disposes. Even within that dismal start, the Functional Constituencies are rotten boroughs, most by design; the Geographical Constituencies produced dissent without producing opposition.
That dissent is now gone. And as to talk of a “loyal opposition”, the purpose which a loyal opposition serves is twofold: first, to keep the ruling party honest and, second, to present an alternative vision. With the pan-Dems ejected or having resigned, and with the United Front being by definition the government, LegCo is now a complete rubber stamp. (ExCo, because the proceedings of its meetings are secret by law, has no enforceable constitutional purpose.)
The result is that the government now owns what happens next. It can do what it pleases; it has eliminated all sources of disharmony.
But this comes at a price. Just as British politicians can no longer blame Brussels, the Hong Kong government can no longer blame pan-Democratic obstruction. Our Chief Executive has all the levers of power she has ever prayed for. There are no longer any brakes on her government’s powers; no checks and no balances, no discordant notes.
It’s not the harmony of a philharmonic orchestra but a single extended note. May God protect her – and us – from prayers that have been answered.
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