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A Government Remiss (part 1 of 3)

Trust is the very important thing missing from the governance of Hong Kong (HK) at present. People in HK have little or no confidence in their government and its leader, Chief Executive (CE), Carrie Lam. The outbreak of Covid-19 in mainland China, and its spread across borders to HK and elsewhere has become a major test of the confidence and trust we have in others. As I write this blog from Hong Kong I wish to start by telling you that I am no preacher, nor do I consider myself a hero. Yet, for the benefit of humanity we need to understand the shortcomings of those who exercise their pretence of authority.

The origins of trust

When a natural disaster such as an earthquake, flood or typhoon occurs it is only natural that people reach out to others in need of assistance. After severe typhoon Mangkhut smashed through HK in 2018 people were moved by the news stories of swathes of volunteers from HK’s African community helping to get the SAR moving again by clearing away fallen trees and debris strewn across roads around the city. These volunteers became our heroes - if only for a few days. Often stories in the media tell of heroic rescues, but in reality ordinary people generally look out for one another. We are grateful when someone holds the door open for us out of common courtesy, but after a car accident, for example, prying a jammed car door open could be the difference between life and death. Good samaritans are everywhere, doing acts of kindness, helping people and animals in need.

We act this way because we care about others, and because of the sanctity of life. Just as we wish to avoid pain, suffering, and death for ourself, we would not normally wish harm upon others. It's about empathy. It's about love and humanity. Trust runs deep, means a lot to most people and comes from your emotional heart. Out of these feelings comes respect for others, respect for life, hope for good things and faith in humanity. It's about meaning what you say, about sincerity and being worthy as a person. It's that value we give to our partners, our neighbours, our friends and family, and our colleagues.

The question is whether, beyond the individual, groups and organisations in society are also capable of the same motivation. Trust then can be about civic responsibility, about leadership and teamwork that go hand in hand. How could an orchestra perform, or a sports team win a game if the individuals participating did not trust one another to do their part responsibly? I agree with others who feel there’s a strong argument that our most important heroic endeavours in society are not individual, they are collective.

In society we expect government and its agents to serve us in positive ways. Government ought to be motivated in an idealistic way to care for the people who elect it, to act in a humanitarian manner. I will not explain how to do this, or give lots of examples, as I think it's human nature to look around and see where there is need. Some young people today are critical of older people, and especially politicians who do not recognise the need to protect the environment and who aren't acting fast enough on sustainability issues. It's about the broken trust between generations. Young people in HK are particularly motivated to protest because they are concerned about their own future and the future of the SAR.

Operating within its means our governments should be unswerving, and unstinting in their efforts to provide, to be fair to all, without discrimination, in an expression of leadership somewhat akin to the unconditional love our parents give us. While trust is often the basis of an unwritten informal contract, in government the obligations and expectations are high and generally well-established in writing! All too often it is left to non-government agencies or foreign aid providers to pick up the pieces of shattered lives when things go wrong. Police, schools and teachers, hospitals and doctors, and all manner of civil servants are duty bound to act through altruism in the interests of the public good. This is a two-way street as they are entrusted with great responsibility and we in turn trust them.

I am not suggesting that government is about developing a social welfare state, training people in pastoral care, or increasing the number of social workers. It's just that people put trust in their governments to do what is best and right for the country and for the citizens, yet we see that trust can be broken or abused. Governance sometimes does crumble and falter. Promises are not fulfilled. Money and time is wasted. Natural disasters and unexpected turns of events have a way of upsetting the best made plans - or perhaps the plan was never really very good to begin with! Decisions are made improperly. Mistakes happen. Those in office forget their calling. Corruption wrought of human failing is unchecked and there can be a lack of transparency, or accountability. Does any of this sound like what is happening in HK?

Trust is important for civilised society to function

Trust is a very important construct in society, but how it is manifest can vary greatly. In language "trust" can function as both noun and verb. It's something we express, and show in our actions. A parent, for example might trust their daughter to remain celibate while dating boys. Some parents might insist their daughter starts taking contraception, and others will do their best to keep their daughter's chastity under lock and key. No dating allowed!

Trust is also something we gain, we can have, and we can be given. It's sometimes about life and death. Consumers buying a new car trust that manufacturers have done their job to produce a vehicle that is safe to drive and fit for purpose. What to do when we find there is a fault with the automatic braking system, or the air bags don't inflate in an accident as they are meant to? We all trust that a life guard working at the beach or local swimming pool is a good swimmer and should the need arise has adequate training in First Aid and resuscitation. In some scenarios we do at least have avenues for redress, perhaps through the courts, when trust has been breached.

There are many levels of trust, and many ways to express it. Those of us with money to spare can put funds into bank accounts, deal with investment brokers and buy into the sharemarket. Though we do exercise due care, we basically trust that we aren't being robbed, scammed, over-charged or short-changed. We also expect and trust that legislation and agencies of police and government would give some protection to us and our savings, guarding against those who would take advantage or act criminally against us.

In 1984 the colonial British government of HK signed an agreement with the Chinese government that was set to shape the future of the city state. The Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong was a signed agreement, a legal contract between the two governments that was based on trust. In particular the Chinese government recognised existing rights and privileges the people of HK enjoyed, and guaranteed they would continue until at least 2047. Perhaps China's breach of the declaration, breach of that trust established with the people of HK and with the British in 1984, has its roots in the lightweight irreverence given to words like 'trust', 'guarantee', and obligation'.

Trust in language

In Chinese society the word 'trust' does not necessarily have the same meaning or weight as it carries in western society. From a linguistic point of view the Chinese character for 'trust' seems to be more about what a person says, and belief in the words they say. An informant tells me that the depth of interpersonal relationships in Chinese culture is limited and that trust of one another is low. I am reminded of how competitive Asian society is. Competition between businesses is often about survival of the fittest. Haggling over the price when you are shopping is commonplace. Students must study very hard if they are to secure entry to the best universities and the courses of their choice. How the word "trust" resonates with Chinese must directly impact social behaviour.

My informant gives me two anecdotes: In China, when you return home you take off your shoes because you don't trust the cleanliness of the outside world, whereas in western society you can keep your shoes on indoors. In the west people call the police to break up fights and brawls, but in China, a bar fight, quarrelling neighbours or a road rage incident seldom involves calling the police as that presents extra hassle and expense for those involved - the police officers expect to be paid 'benefits' and are seldom trusted. The person who is most often able to get out of trouble is the one who, after the fracas and behind the scene, is able to pay those officers the most. My informant says that Chinese people are more selfish, and that over the years of CCP governance religious and spiritual idealism has gradually been eliminated from the national psyche.

So, how is trust manifest in HK and mainland governments?

Please read part 2 of 3 in this series about the missing trust HK people have in their government.

Jeremiah B.

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