Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the current row over discussing Hong Kong independence in schools, or anywhere else for that matter, is the way that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying scrambled to follow the most extremist advice of his minders.
We have seen how Leung and his hapless Secretary for (Selective) Justice Rimsky Yuen rushed out and declared that even talking about the subject would result in serious consequences.
The ensuing furor must have alarmed the bosses in Beijing, prompting them Thursday to deploy a favorite mouthpiece, Rita Fan, to suggest that perhaps some controlled discussion can be tolerated.
Meanwhile the even more hapless Education Secretary Eddie Ng had been summoned to Beijing for fresh orders which appear to have left him somewhat confused. However, even he was able to understand that the new line stipulated that some sort of guided discussions could be held in schools as long as teachers made sure to tell students that any notion of independence was absurd.
Confusion now abounds but what is chillingly clear is that Hong Kong’s leaders were almost thoughtlessly prepared to embrace the idea of controlling thought in a manner that ominously recalls the dystopian world of George Orwell’s famous novel Nineteen Eighty Four.
In the novel the Ministry of Truth ensures that subjects living under the totalitarian dictatorship are denied “unapproved thoughts”. If such thoughts are expressed, even in private, the citizens of Orwell’s blighted land are rapidly thrown into jail and charged with “crimethink”.
When the novel was written more than sixty years ago Orwell was much concerned with the tides of fascism and communism that had swept through Europe but the power of his writing is so strong that to this day we still talk of things being Orwellian, to describe authoritarian thought control.
It is a safe bet that he never gave a moment’s thought to the idea that thought crime, or “crimethink” as it is termed in the book, would emerge as pressing issue in tiny little Hong Kong seven decades later.
Yet, astonishingly, that’s where we are today. Everyone from the bosses in Beijing, to their willing assistants in Tamar, plus the usual ragbag of flag wavers have taken to speaking about the thought crime of discussing Hong Kong independence or localism or perhaps both.
As ever, they want it stopped. At one stage they wanted teachers sacked if they transgressed the undrawn boundaries and, now they are not quite sure what they want so they have settled for dark mutterings about further action.
It is important to note that punitive action is being contemplated for the act of merely discussing something that the bosses in Beijing do not wish to be discussed. Those advocating punishment are well aware that they are on shaky legal grounds here but seem to regard the law as an obstacle, not as a set of rules. And these are the same people who shout loudest about the need for unblinking adherence to the Basic Law.
Their version of rule of law is a matter of pick and match, allowing the bits they don’t like to be discarded.
Restraint needs to be exercised when trying to assess the speed at which Hong Kong is traveling down the road to totalitarian rule. As recently as last year I would have been among the most adamant advocates for exercising caution in this regard because, despite many setbacks, the SAR had proved its ability to cling tenaciously onto the two systems part of the one country, two systems equation.
However things are changing with alarming speed. This latest manifestation of truly appalling mindless and authoritarian instincts on behalf Hong Kong’s rulers has not come out of the blue.
Moreover it is most worrying that the desire for thought control is focused so heavily on young people.
All dictatorships, with no exceptions, have made it a priority to control the minds of the younger generation. In free and successful societies the nurturing of young minds encourages open thinking, constant challenge and the development of the capacity for independent thought. The opposite is true in dictatorships.
Maybe it is the careless way in which the Hong Kong leadership connives to erode people’s open way of life that is most appalling or maybe something much worse lurks in the background.
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