I have been struck lately by the difficulty of reconciling happenings in the real world with the way they are described in official verbiage. Our new Chief Executive says press freedom needs no defence in Hong Kong even as we drop to the murky depths of international rankings; the Chief Justice says we enjoy unquestioned judicial independence (well … Warren Buffett says you should never ask a barber if you need a haircut) while the government simply refuses to appoint to the Judicial Officers Recommendations Commission any “representative” it does not like the look of.

The Hong Kong Trade Office in London says that democracy will develop in the city but it will be “democracy with Hong Kong characteristics.” This apparently means democracy in defiance of the relevant laws, as the District Council by-elections have been postponed illegally and indefinitely. Whatever you think of the arrangements now used to select legislators and senior leaders, local democracy has simply been abolished.

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File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

We are supposed to enjoy freedom of speech, but some outspoken commentators have taken to putting their Wordle score on their Facebook page every morning so that friends and fans can see they have not been arrested. Yet. Every democratic politician you have heard of is in prison or has been recently, except Emily Lau. This is not a criticism of Ms Lau, who was just lucky in her choice of retirement date.

A clue, perhaps, from a book I have been reading recently. This is The Power of the Powerless by Vaclav Havel – a noted Czech dissenter during the Communist years and later the President of the country. He wrote it in 1978, when Czechoslovakia was still effectively a Soviet colony. The question which fascinated sympathisers outside the country and restless spirits inside it was how this status was maintained with at least a façade of complicity and contentment, despite the widespread knowledge of the invasion and installation of a puppet regime ten years earlier.

One answer goes like this:

“The … system touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on. This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his or her ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of freedom of expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of worldviews; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance. Because the regime is captive of its own lies if must falsify everything. It falsifies the past, it falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing. Individuals need not believe in all these mystifications, but they must behave as if they did…”

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Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Some parts of this look specific to the Soviet empire before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some parts of it look distressingly familiar. For this reason I am sceptical about the argument advanced by several respectable writers recently, that Hong Kong’s problems could be solved by better PR.

What we see, after all, is a drastic divergence between the “inside view” of Hong Kong, as propagated on its behalf, and the “outside view” as perceived in other places. No doubt both the official view – nothing has changed – and the outside one – Xinjiang-on-Sea – are too extreme to be accurate. But certainly some things have changed.

As the makers of Coca Cola found out to their cost, no amount of PR or advertising will do any good if you vandalise the product. Hong Kong used to be known as a place where you could do and say more or less what you wished, subject to the sort of legal restrictions to which citizens of free countries are accustomed. Any serious consideration of our local problem must start with the recognition that this particular parrot is dead. This parrot, as the famous sketch has it, has expired and gone to meet its maker; it has ceased to be. It is an ex-parrot.

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A banner inside the Hong Kong government headquarters promoting the national security law. Photo: GovHK.

What we are to put in its place I really don’t know. Roll up for the super-patriotic legislature, the opportunity-rich Greater Bay Area, the super national security? Come to sunny Hong Kong, where the prisons are full and the airport is empty? See the world’s most expensive legislative election?

If I may make a humble suggestion this is perhaps not the time for a PR offensive anyway. Covid is currently the public health issue in the public eye, so countries and territories are judged by how they handle it. This is another international league table in which we have slipped from the top spots recently, but this can be remedied. At the moment we sit uneasily between the economic revival produced by “living with it” and the clean bill of health produced by “dynamic zero.”

We have the disadvantages of both approaches without their compensating advantages. If this problem were sorted out, then an improved reputation would ensue. And if not, not.

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HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

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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.