27 October 2016
Let them eat burgers: Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor launches the 'Appreciate Hong Kong' campaign even as a growing number of Hongkongers have no choice but to sleep in fast-food outlets. Photo: HKEJ
Let them eat burgers: Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor launches the 'Appreciate Hong Kong' campaign even as a growing number of Hongkongers have no choice but to sleep in fast-food outlets. Photo: HKEJ

Spirit of Marie Antoinette reappears in Tamar

The spirit of Marie Antoinette, the queen consort of Louis XVI of France, is alive and kicking somewhere out there in Tamar.

When told that the French peasantry were starving and in dire need of bread, she reportedly said, “Let them eat cake.”

There is considerable dispute over whether she actually said this or, to be more accurate, said, “Let them eat brioche” — a French pastry similar to a highly enriched bread.

However, what is not in dispute is the indifference of the French monarchy to the plight of the poor, so Marie Antoinette’s heartless, stupid and half-joking dismissal of their plight came to be widely believed.

Fast forward to 2015, and we see the Leung Chun-ying government engaged in its version of let them eat cake with a campaign designed to heal and unite society by offering free tickets to theme parks for the “deserving” poor, chances to buy cheap goods and all the usual nonsense that surrounds these absurd campaigns.

This latest campaign rejoices in the name “Appreciate Hong Kong” and follows the Leung regime’s two, equally absurd, previous offerings – “Hong Kong Our Home” and “Bless Hong Kong”.

Even I am not quite sad enough to recall the details of these morale-boosting exercises, but I am pretty sure that they, too, sought to solve basic problems by ignoring them, focusing instead on giveaways.

The wonder is that officials actually believe that they can divert attention by dishing out free gifts and hosting a clutch of ceremonies giving the predictable roster of luminaries a chance to kit themselves in their best threads and beam for the cameras.

The fact that the Leung administration, and to be fair, its predecessors, goes in for this nonsense is far more telling than anything officials are likely to say.

Their real message is: “We can’t do anything substantial to improve the livelihood of Hong Kong’s most underprivileged people, but we can make some flashy gestures.”

Another way of reading this is much worse, because it assumes that the government views the people with so much contempt as to believe they are dumb enough to confuse free gifts and parties with substantive action.

In a society with one-fifth of the population living below the poverty line, where polarization seems to have become official policy and where growing fears of Hong Kong’s liberties being whittled away persist, this pathetic attempt to divert attention is, well, pathetic.

The most generous interpretation of the “Appreciate” campaign’s timing is that it is aimed at boosting the vote for the pro-government camp in the district council elections.

I describe this as generous because it suggests that the administration has some serious engagement with the democratic process.

However, it is far more likely that Mr. Leung and his colleagues are largely dismissive of democratic processes and not that much bothered by their outcome, because they have ensured that real power remains in their hands.

Yet, and this is remarkable in some ways, like all non-elected officials everywhere in the world, Mr. Leung wants to be loved and shares the delusions of other leaders without a mandate who actually believe they are loved because they spend their time surrounded by sycophants who tell them this is the case.

It follows that they occasionally throw out some crumbs to the great unwashed – often the crumbs take the form of precisely the kind of showy trifles typified by the “Appreciate” campaign.

More often, however, when all else fails, these non-elected leaders, or leaders elected by phony elections, turn to patriotic campaigns as a way of boosting their popularity.

This was a specialty of the brutal Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, one of the Chinese regime’s only friends in the Communist world after the Sino-Soviet split in 1958.

Hoxha developed his own special version of Albanian history and its central place in Europe; most of it was sheer fantasy but nonetheless ardently churned out by the country’s propaganda machine, one of the only machines that actually functioned in Communist Albania.

No doubt CY Leung would resort more often to waving the flag, but as the recent China vs. Hong Kong football match showed, he sort of understands that this is problematic.

The extent of why this is so was vividly revealed when he was asked which team he was supporting: he responded by saying he supported both teams.

Oh dear, can you imagine any elected leader not having the courage to fully support his home team?

However CY must have been pleased with the final 0-0 score, as he seems to like stalemate.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author

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