Like many English people I have a weakness for underdogs and lost causes. Hereward the Wake against the Normans, Bonnie Prince Charlie against the Duke of Cumberland, John Henry and the steam hammer, the Alamo… Show us a loser and we love him.
But there are limits. Asking, as some people have done recently, for a public inquiry into the Hong Kong government’s handling of the Covid pandemic suggests that the people concerned have not been following the drift of current events at all. This is not an underdog; it’s a dead duck.
There are, it is true, many interesting facets that such an inquiry might look into. Broadly I suppose it would conclude that people had done their best in a difficult situation, beset by conflicting advice from “the science” and messages from a northerly direction which were not always motivated by medicine.
But even if you accept that general conclusion there are many details which would make interesting reading. How did we make a good job of the original unexpected outbreak but make a mess of the Omicron arrival, which was predictable both generally (viruses mutate) and particularly (other places got it first)?
It would be really nice to know exactly who were those public-spirited entrepreneurs who sold the government routine items at outrageous prices. Was it really a good idea to devote scarce resources and attention to distributing free traditional Chinese medicine on the off-chance that some ancient wizard had stumbled on a cure for virus-born diseases 5,000 years before the virus was invented?
And would the more conventional counter-measures have been more acceptable and effective if they had not been “adjusted” quite so often?
But people dreaming of a public inquiry into such matters have not been updating themselves on what is officially known as the “new constitutional order.”
The theory behind a public inquiry is that the government is answerable to the public, that its inner workings should, if interesting, be exposed to public view, and that those exercising power on the public’s behalf should be required to explain and defend their actions.
That is not compatible with the current constitutional arrangement, which is that our government is selected, approved and instructed by the central organs of the Chinese Communist Party. “Our” government is their government. The idea of a public inquiry is based on an incorrect understanding of the real meaning of One Country Two Systems, which is that where two possible courses of action are offered we are required to select the right one, which is the One Country one.
This would not necessarily preclude a public inquiry, but it would preclude one which satisfied the purposes of such an event. The person or people conducting it would be, like the Legislative Council (LegCo), carefully vetted to avoid surprises. Like LegCo, the consequence would be a widespread lack of interest in its entirely predictable proceedings.
We would be revisiting the old chief executive selection dilemma: someone who was popular in Hong Kong would for that reason be unacceptable in Beijing, while someone who was acceptable in Beijing would for that reason be regarded with suspicion in Hong Kong.
This is not to say, though, that opposition from the Liaison Office is solely to blame for the fact that this inquiry is a non-starter. After all, our chief executive came to us after a career as a practitioner and beneficiary of the police approach to public relations.
This states that all arrestees are guilty, all violence is necessary, all shootings are in self-defence and all visits to vice establishments by senior officers are entirely innocent because Our Boys Can Do No Wrong.
This approach is now being spread to the whole government, which never acknowledges error, never apologises and never admits to changing its mind, because it is without fault or flaw.
Local criticism can be prosecuted as subversion, while overseas criticism can be dismissed as a result of anti-China prejudice or scurrilous attempts by foreigners to hamper China’s rise to its rightful position in the world. This produces a very confident government.
It is difficult to find sympathetic international partners for this sort of view, but not impossible. I notice a large delegation of officials and business bodies visited Saudi Arabia last week in search of opportunities. Some of these were “business opportunities”, which I suppose are no worse there than anywhere else.
Officials also held out the prospect of “legal exchanges”. With a regime which jails critics, executes children, tortures suspects, stones adulterers, amputates thieves’ hands and punishes women for “disobedience”? How nice.
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