16 January 2019
Missing booksellers, a wildly overbudget express rail project, the naming of Arthur Li (right) to chair the HKU council have all made Hongkongers uneasy, but officials hope to soothe them by repeating the mantra 'rule of law'. Photo: HKEJ
Missing booksellers, a wildly overbudget express rail project, the naming of Arthur Li (right) to chair the HKU council have all made Hongkongers uneasy, but officials hope to soothe them by repeating the mantra 'rule of law'. Photo: HKEJ

Belt up and kick the can down the road

“The rule of law” — has there ever been a phrase more savagely and indiscriminately abused by those in government in Hong Kong?

Several secretaries for justice – arguably the most contradictory job description of any government departmental head – have trotted it out with the glib enuresis of verbal abominations such as “you know” and “like”.

Since July 1997 it has been an article of faith with spokespeople for the special administrative region that, provided “the rule of law” is deployed to punctuate liberally any topic that impinges on the basic freedoms of the people of Hong Kong, those same people will sleep secure in the belief that theirs is a benign government.

As time progresses and the utterances of government officials become ever more and more vacuous, it has dawned on even the most pedestrian of minds that these worthies really do not have the faintest glimmer of an idea of what is meant by “the rule of law”.

Yet, we must not condemn them out of hand for their ignorance.

So fixated have they become in attending to the transmogrification of Hong Kong into an entity indistinguishable from any other Chinese city, that the distinction between a community governed by the rule of law and an autocracy has quite eluded them.

No matter that our most distinguished jurists have explained, usually in words of no more than two syllables, what is meant by concepts such as the separation of powers and an independent judiciary; still, the cognitive powers of the denizens of Tamar are as intractable as a mule.

In its most pragmatic manifestation, the rule of law connotes total equality before the law or, put even more simply, no one is above the law.

The fact that any incumbent of the office of chief executive of Hong Kong cannot be prosecuted for corruption illustrates that the draftsmen of the law fell into fundamental error.

Sadly, our cousins to the north appear to believe that the occupant of the chief executive’s office has the carapace of an armadillo.

Perhaps, in the larger scheme of things, this Achilles’ heel in our rule of law is relatively unimportant, because political leaders all over the world quickly succumb to a measure of megalomania and spend large amounts of time and energy insulating themselves from liability with all the aplomb of a dodgy insurance company.

No, the essence of the rule of law is that the majority of the people who live within a society agree to be bound by the laws that regulate that society.

The opposite is anarchy, where no one agrees to be bound by any law.

From which contrast one can see that it is the voluntary nature of the submission to the regulated society that defines it.

Philosophers argue that elections permit a society to be ruled in accordance with the will of its people.

In practice, elections allow the populace to express their willingness to be bound by the laws passed by those it elects.

As such, elections are akin to a safety valve that prevents the society from imploding.

No doubt it is an imperfect device, but it has worked in its own curious way for decades.

Of course, the art of governing is to do so in such a way as will keep the lid on a voluntary society.

Not so much to please the majority for most of the time but rather to deflect disaffection by the majority lest they refuse to accept the safety mechanism any longer.

All governments, almost by definition, irritate and disappoint their constituent populations most of the time.

The art of pragmatic government is to avoid taking blatantly absurd steps that will engender wide-scale hostility that passes the tipping point.

A free society has the mechanism by which to change its rulers periodically, thereby reflecting the acceptance or rejection of its policies.

Where that mechanism is either missing or fundamentally biased in favour of one section of the society, there is an existential risk of implosion.

It is a curious feature of many advanced societies that, despite having either no mechanism or a flawed one, their level of tolerance has the patience of Job.

But that patience comes at a price, and in Hong Kong the price is the erosion of hope for the future.

Now those who enjoy the fat of the land rail against those whose prospects of sharing in Hong Kong’s economic success are fading away at an increasingly alarming rate.

Angry students with their impractical demands for instant remedies resort to tactics that they would roundly condemn in their opponents.

In a politically febrile situation, it was foreseeable that an ugly confrontational measure such as the appointment of Arthur Li Kwok-cheung as chairman of the governing council of the University of Hong Kong would exacerbate a student population whose rejection of the unacceptable features of autocratic rule was amply articulated in the Occupy movement.

The art of government is compromise, and great leaders lead by example.

Hong Kong is faced with truly pressing problems, such as a yawning wealth disparity, homelessness, dissipation of assets on follies like the high-speed rail link, and the urgent necessity to curb the mounting hostility to mainlanders.

Regrettably, that potpourri of individuals both elected and appointed to the Legislative Council has failed, miserably, to produce even a handful of personalities who, while not abandoning their principles, have the leadership skills to navigate through the minefield of property developers, communist fellow travellers and antic would-be democrats to cobble together practical solutions.

The chief executive’s failure to stand up for Hong Kong’s system when faced with the mainland’s travesty of silence followed by “explanations” for the sinister rendition of the booksellers has sent a chilling message to those Hongkongers who do not subscribe to the People’s Republic of China’s system.

Reconfiguring Xi Jinping’s clever “One Belt, One Road” policy to a meaningless “Belt and Road” sound bite may, possibly, ingratiate him with President Xi, but Hongkongers, who once slept securely in their beds, would prefer that CY Leung belt up and stop kicking the can down the road.

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