It is a curious feature of current events in Hong Kong that the easiest way to understand what is going on is to read the works of George Orwell.

Accordingly we can venture a prediction that, now that the government has declared its intention to outlaw “fake news” we shall shortly be treated to the creation of a Ministry of Truth to decide what is true and what is false.

1984, by George Orwell. Photo: HKFP remix.

This is a political question, not a philosophical one, as the hero of 1984 discovers:

“You are a slow learner, Winston.”

“How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”

“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder.”

The staffing of the new ministry will not be a problem. The question which interests me is who will head it. The duties of the Minister of Truth require a certain mental flexibility, embodied in slogans like: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

Basically the person appointed must be able to assert that two and two make five confidently, sincerely, without blushing or giggling. We can all think of local public figures who have the necessary ability, but punters looking to pick the winner will have to exclude those for whom the Ministry of Truth would be a demotion.

Eligible, perhaps, for a move sideways is Mainland and Constitutional Affairs Secretary Erick Tsang, who hit global front pages with his variation on patriotism: “You cannot say you are patriotic but you do not love the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party or you do not respect it – this does not make sense. Patriotism is holistic love.”

This will come as a surprise to many people in free countries, who suppose that patriotism is perfectly compatible with an awareness of the deficiencies of their leaders. Patriotic Ugandans did not generally love Idi Amin, patriotic Cambodians had a distinctly Platonic relationship with Pol Pot, and patriotic Americans – even those who voted for him – did not all feel that they had an obligation to love Donald Trump.

Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang at an unofficial meeting of the Panel on Constitutional Affairs. Photo: Legislative Council, via video screenshot.

The notion of compulsory love is intrinsically problematic. We may feel we have an obligation to respect the government because it is the government, but that has very little to do with love of one’s country, which is a complex emotion not susceptible to persuasion.

Indeed there are often complaints that the notion of their country which people love is not very realistic. “La France profonde” is actually inhabited by very few modern Frenchmen and the idea of Britain which comes up in patriotic contexts – as here – is anachronistically pre-industrial.

Another strong candidate to head the Ministry of Truth is Mr Junius Ho, who has already demonstrated a formidable way with words by providing interesting explanations for such phrases as “kill them all” and “you are my heroes.”

Mr Ho has joined the chorus of abuse rising from pro-Beijing circles aimed at Mr Paul Harris. Mr Harris’s crime was to suggest that the powers that be might like to reconsider some parts of the National Security Law (NSL). Suggesting that anything done in Beijing is less than perfect demonstrates a lack of holistic love.

Junius Ho (left). File Photo: Citizen News.

The part of Mr Ho’s piece – a joint effort with another lawyer – which suggested a promising future in the truth business, came when discussing the Court of Final Appeal’s (CFA) decision in Jimmy Lai’s bail case.

Mr Ho correctly stated the legal position: “the legislative acts of the National People’s Congress and its Standing Committee  leading to the promulgation of the NSL as a law of the HKSAR… are not subject to review on the basis of any alleged incompatibility as between the NSL and the Basic Law, or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” In other words the CFA does not have the jurisdiction to decide on such incompatibility or to resolve it – if found –  by ruling parts of the NSL unconstitutional, as some people would wish.

Mr Ho’s interpretation of this is ”In essence, the judgment dismisses the allegation by Harris that some provisions of the NSL are incompatible with the Basic Law.” But that is not what the court said at all, in essence or in fact. If the court decides that an act is not subject to review then it does not review it. No review took place and Mr Harris’s theory remains a possibility. Indeed Mr Harris bowed to the official constitutional line by acknowledging that any such deficiency could only be remedied in Beijing.

Senate House, London, where Orwell’s wife worked at the Ministry of Information, was his model for the Ministry of Truth. Photo: An Siarach via Wikipedia.

Mr Ho is clearly well qualified to lead us towards the future foretold in 1984, in which “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

Another strong candidate is the nameless author of the Education Bureau’s recent defence of its guidelines for “national security education”. This starts with “The [bureau] disagrees categorically with the malicious labelling of national security education as ‘brainwashing or spoon-feeding young children’.” A news report continued: “The bureau added it believed critical thinking skills would also be part of national security education, claiming media literacy should be strengthened among pupils as “fake news, hearsay, or unproven allegations could be hazardous to national security.”

So there will be critical thinking? Not exactly. National security “should not be taught as if it is a controversial topic. Instead, it should be clearly pointed out that safeguarding national security is the responsibility of all nationals and that there is no room for debate or compromise.”

Going to school. Photo: GovHK.

Have you got that, children? The Education Bureau wants you to be critical, but only critical in the right places. You should, for example, switch on your critical faculties when dealing with things like this (also from Orwell): 

“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power… We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognise their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”

Obviously that’s fiction. Any resemblance to real parties living or dead is a coincidence. When Mr Tsang tells you to love the Party, on the other hand, you’d better believe it.

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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.