A Government Remiss (part 2 of 3)
Updated: Jun 11, 2020
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.
Part 1 of this blog considered the meaning of 'trust' and its implications for society. I said then that I was not a preacher, but here I must say I am not an artisan either. Now it is time to consider how trustworthy our governments are. It might seem messy, but the picture I paint here is more like a patchwork quilt with layers and threads of various hue interwoven. (Thanks to my sister for this comparison!) It's a complex situation cast over many weeks and months, involving several different agents or players working separately and simultaneously.
How is trust manifest in HK and mainland governments?
Given the cultural difference in the way trust is manifest in the west and in China, can other countries of the world trust the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to be open and honest with information about numbers of infected patients in China and the mortality rate? We know that the CCP is always very keen to control the narrative - see any of our blogs on its control of the media! There could also be organisational or economic reasons that the CCP feeds the world misinformation on the accurate number of afflicted people in its provinces. Still, in principle, governance should be more about being caring, cooperative and considerate and less about maintaining authoritarian control.
Do you trust the HK Government and its Chief Executive (CE) Carrie Lam to act in a timely and appropriate way to protect citizens of the SAR from infection and to provide best care for those who have contracted the virus? There is not a lot of evidence that given the city's experience of the SARS epidemic in 2003, the HK government has learnt its lessons from events then. Under pressure, the government has seemed incapable of the kind of purposeful and mindful reflection that could shape the policies and initiatives it instigates in response to Covid-19.
While Lam has told the people of HK "We must stand united so that we can prevent and control the disease", there are many who are critical of the CE for her refusal to shut down HK's border with China. They say that her refusal is further proof of her collusion with authorities in Beijing, that she has lost touch with what HK society wants and needs, and as a result many HKers are reluctant to cooperate with her regime.
Do you trust Government agencies in Hong Kong such as the Health Department or its "Centre for Health Protection" (CHP) to speak up, to communicate and act in a timely and appropriate way to preserve people's good health? According to research carried out by Chinese university medical school only 16% of HKers believe the information released by the government regarding the Covid-19 epidemic. Many HK people prefer to take note of what they glean from social media, wary of bias, misinformation and even lies in other official communication channels. HK television advertising still relentlessly warns people to be wary of damaging fake news on social media, disproportionately avoiding the 'elephant in the room' of damage done to HK's economy and society by its style of governance, and how HK's interests are being gradually subsumed by those of mainland China and the CCP!
How could people ever trust the HK government that refuses to set up a proper independent judicial investigation into police behaviour during the last six months of civil unrest in HK? (See our blog on this topic) There is little trust for a government that continues to unswervingly back the police despite incidents like that which occurred in Yuen Long, in Yau Ma Tei, in Tsim Sha Tsui and in Prince Edward MTR station, and other complaints against the force including attacks on the media. Lam gives more trust and affection to her beloved Police force than to citizens and victims of her zealous enforcers. In her supposed belief that the Police action against demonstrators is justified, Lam has never even as much as directed the Police to exercise greater restraint. She and her government have also allowed the police to undermine the work of medical professionals and hospitals, and knowingly politicised children.
On 28 June, 2019 several United Nations Special Rapporteurs wrote to China about what it termed "alleged" excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators and human rights defenders, as well as apparent arbitrary arrest of individuals participating in peaceful demonstrations in HK. To date there has been no response from authorities in Beijing.
The CE has repeatedly rejected public demands for accountability through an investigation of police use of force, and ignored calls from reputable and objective individuals locally and internationally, instead trusting the police to investigate themselves. By siding with the Police and insisting that existing watchdog organisations, the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission) and CAPO (Complaints Against Police Office) are adequate for investigating Police actions she has further distanced herself from a large body of mainly peaceful protesters. They insist that the Police cannot meaningfully investigate themselves. Meanwhile every Police Station across HK has been turned into a fortress, barricaded to keep people and protesters out, and the force has removed the word about "care" from its operational motto. Where there was once mutual trust we now have fear and loathing.
Imagine ordinary people's reaction in late-February 2020, when despite the advice from the CHP to maintain social distance, several Police officers contracted Covid-19 and over 50 other officers had to be quarantined after attending a farewell banquet for a colleague! The function, attended by several pro-Beijing HK media acolytes was widely reported on social media.
Doing too little, acting too late
After intense pressure to be seen to do something, in October 2019 the CE finally invited foreign experts to join the IPCC inquiry team to investigate police brutality. Within a month the outside experts had dropped out, adding weight to claims that the inquiry was a toothless exercise without the power to subpoena evidence. Even in January, 2020, the CE still rejected the notion of an independent inquiry when speaking to media on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Her IPCC inquiry is yet to present its complete findings, and the release of its full and final report is delayed indefinitely. However, what has already been released does identify 'shortcomings' in officers' conduct. There is also some messy business going on over whether IPCC or CAPO has the jurisdiction to handle particular complaints given their nature.
From an onlookers' point of view it seems the CE just wants to control any investigation, and that she isn't playing things straight. She is running out of time since the delays only fuel people's dissatisfaction and impatience with her, and allow the failing trust in the HK Police force to fester even more. Amnesty International has raised the suggestion that an independent inquiry mechanism should be established internationally if Lam continues to reject the idea of an independent investigation.
In an interview with well-known Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei - Chinese authorities call him a dissident - that was aired on German public television in August 2019, it was said that in reality there is no HK government, that authorities in HK act as puppets for Central government in Beijing. Although the HK government is meant to operate its own political 'system' as part of the "one country, two systems" model espoused by Beijing, every time HK tries to assert its own identity it is seen as a challenge by Central government.
In fact, it's the failure to implement the "one country, two system" formula properly that has lead to this breakdown in trust: Beijing does not trust the people of HK to elect its own government, to manage its own affairs; HK does not trust Beijing to fulfil its legal obligations, to be transparent, to be fair, open and conciliatory. Also, while the historical record of CCP in government may sit well with mainlanders, it does not with HKers who have greater access to information, more freedom of speech and quite different values as a result. These differences are part of an inherent tension that has fed conflict between HK and mainland authorities since even before the handover.
So often HK protesters' demands for autonomy are misinterpreted by mainland authorities as calls for independence, or a threat to sovereignty. Beijing no doubt feels threatened by the protests in HK. For Lam, being the head of a puppet government means having to deny the obvious, and defend the absurd. If you consider for a moment, as we have done in one of our latest blogs, that the CCP behaves like a virus, then the HK government has been infected by the political ideology and authoritarianism the CCP espouses. In much that the HK government does and doesn't do, it contributes to the gradual erosion of trust, and subsequent weakening of its independent judiciary and legal frameworks.
Lam assumes an arrogance that means she isn't transparent about decision-making processes. When an explanation is given, many in HK complain her assurances and promises seem mechanical and hollow. Although she has at times shown signs of tenderness, in recent months she has developed 'tough skin' and could now be called a 'teflon lady' who generally seems resilient to whatever heat of criticism she is subjected to. She has attempted to swiftly pass legislation through the Legislative Council (LegCo) without allowing proper consultation or debate, and has used the Police to silence opposition. Perhaps it's because her Beijing masters, and high ranking officials in the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Bureau are pushing her to be more authoritarian in her style of governance? See our blog about how the leadership of CE Lam is being propped up by the Central government of China.
Together both Central government in Beijing and HK's local government have failed to ratify and comply with various human rights coventions to which they are signatories. These include the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. They have both made a mockery of their human rights standing internationally, and drawn particular criticism from Amnesty International and other agencies that monitor Human Rights. What we also see now is that the CCP and Lam are undermining the city state's autonomy as guaranteed under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, and weakening the legal and judicial standing of the SAR so much that international business and financial institutions are having second thoughts about being based here. Beijing needs to understand the pivotal idea that academics studying politics, business and economics put forward many years ago - that within nations a high level of trust will engender a greater level of wealth. HK needs those countries and businesses who partner with it, to have belief, faith, trust in the rule of law and the legal framework our government is based upon.
The aftermath of government failure
Without good governance to protect us from an imminent health threat in HK, many have taken whatever steps they can to protect themselves, such as buying up provisions like rice, disinfectant, toilet paper and face masks. Many HKers are convinced that a terrible epidemic, even worse than SARS is coming. They recognise that mainland Chinese from across the boarder in Shenzhen who may be carrying Covid-19 can still get visas to enter HK. HKers don't buy into the idea that closing the many border entry points HK is in any way "discriminatory" or racist as Lam has claimed. It's just about keeping a potentially deadly illness at bay. The advice of the WHO is known, but unfortunately trust in Dr Tedros and the organisation evaporated once he was seen to be parroting the official CCP line.
While crazy shopping and hoarding behaviour has been ridiculed as "stupid", government spokespeople like HK Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung said there was no need for panic-buying. In the absence of trust, citizens' fearful response to the threat of Covid-19 has not changed. Supermarket shelves have emptied out in a way that many consider signs of a failed state. Despite assurances that the imposition of a two-week quarantine required of anyone arriving in HK from the mainland would not affect the flow of goods, and that there are ample supplies of staple needs, we have seen a global shortage of protective equipment like face masks and taken note of price gouging.
Unsurprisingly, at the end of February we are hearing noise from Xi Jinping who is anxious to get the mainland's manufacturing sector up and running again. Some international commentators on the Covid-19 epidemic have suggested that countries and businesses may revisit globalisation, their logistics arrangements, supply lines and production centres in light of recent events. This could yet present another threat to China and the CCP.
The HK government's quarantine arrangements previously mentioned were seen as being less than satisfactory right from the start and did not inspire people's confidence. Medical staff working under HK's Hospital Authority went on strike for 5 days urging the CE to close all the border entry points to minimise community infections and reduce the burden on hospitals. A report on the epidemic sent to Beijing from the CE's office unfairly and incorrectly portrayed the unionists involved as "black sheep" affiliated with anti-extradition protesters and suggested the Hospital Authority dismiss those involved (Source: Apple Daily, 23, February 2020). It seems those in the CE's office are unaware that the right of association, to form unions and to strike is enshrined in the Basic Law - HK's mini constitution.
Lam casts blame willy-nilly and fails to acknowledge that even HK business people are opposed to what she does on Beijing's behalf. Meanwhile there have been other protests about changing the designation of some outpatient clinics into dedicated clinics for suspected coronavirus patients.
Frighteningly, lest we say "I told you so!", a number of people breached the conditions of their 14 day quarantine to visit a local hospital in the hope of seeing medical specialists. Plus, we note that many mainland factories have been unable to restart normal production and it is having an impact on particular supply chains. There are also some problems arising in freight and logistics services that stem from Covid-19 cutbacks. Things may possibly get worse before they get better. The tardiness of Lam's government, its shortsightedness and lack of preparedness is more evident than ever.
Now the concern in HK is whether you can trust your employer to do the right things to ensure that you are not exposed to Covid-19 by some compromise in hygiene measures or workplace safety. Just as employers extend trust to their staff, employees also trust their boss to pay them on time and maintain a safe workplace. Yet, see our blog on what has happened to foreign domestic helpers in HK as an example of the erosion of workers rights. The CE in this case showed callous disregard for the plight of these domestic helpers amid the Covid-19 outbreak who continue to contribute significantly to HK's economic success.
Can we trust schools, airlines and public transport, restaurants, manufacturers and other businesses that offer goods and services that we rely on, to be responsible, careful, informed and transparent about what they do to look after us as clients or customers? Many HK businesses have shut down indefinitely in response to the virus outbreak, and it's commendable that they do so despite it's heavy financial cost. For some HK businesses shutting shop has been a cost-saving measure amidst drastic falls in their usual mainland Chinese tourist customer base. Clearly it would not be good for any of these enterprises to allow Covid-19 to spread further in the community because of their negligence, their impatience, weakness or greed.
Pleas and appeals
On TVB Pearl Television's "Straight Talk" programme broadcast in HK on Tuesday, 18th January 2020, host Michael Chugani interviewed Pro-Beijing legislator Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung, who is a member of the city’s Executive Council. He was asked about the HK government's response to Covid-19 and the supply and provision of face masks in the SAR. The Executive Council is a group of legislators that act as direct advisors and supporters of the CE. While he pleaded for calm and cooperation, even he squirmed uneasily as he acknowledged that the public do not trust the government. It was not the first time that Executive Council members or Lam herself had appealed for unity against the virus. While he agreed that some steps taken by the CE to combat Covid-19 could have been taken sooner, he stuck to his compensatory position that it was 'never too late' for the CE to act. Perhaps he has not seen the movie 'Titanic' to learn the lesson about steering the ship away from the iceberg to avoid collision?
In my view, the CE has an awful lot to put right, to fully make amends for the havoc she has brought to HK. I still feel optimistic about HK and its people, and I don't yet think it should be called a sinking ship. The CE has not respected the will of the people of HK, and it seems reasonable therefore to state that there is no reason for them to respect her. Many say she has shown contempt and disrespect by publicly condemning those who protest against police brutality or who oppose her government. For a start she should stop denigrating healthcare workers who gave medical assistance during months of protest, and who she now demands give their service in the frontline against Covid-19!
I have a clear idea in my mind of who Carrie Lam trusts, however a report by Apple Daily suggests that things are fluid. Some of her pro-Beijing legislators, with the forthcoming LegCo elections in mind, have negotiated with Mainland authorities and secured assistance to quickly set up mask manufacturing facilities in the SAR. Much to the chagrin of the CE, having done so has won them political favour at Lam's expense. The leader of one of the pro-Beijing HK political parties has even rebuked the government for its poor performance on the mask supply issue.
For HKers, there is little reason to trust and respect China's central government. If only they had some stronger form of leverage to force Beijing to behave more humanely! At least in HK the people have LegCo elections coming up in September 2020, and they have just had District Council elections that were historical successes for pro-democratic parties and the pro-democracy movement as a whole. The results clearly sent a message to Beijing about the direction that the HK ship is heading!
Making herself out to be a historian, my linguist informant says that throughout history in China there has always been a terrible relationship between government and its people. That is why many migrants from mainland China escape the government there by moving into HK, though unwittingly they are part of a process termed 'mainlandisation' by HKers. In China it's about rule by law and you have a stable society that is achieved only with threats, coercion and the power of the gun. By contrast, in HK the SAR operates on 'rule of law' and harmony within society stems from trust: there is trust in the independent judiciary and the legal system that provides reliability, security and protection among other things. Ideally we would also have complete trust in the CE and our government legislators, but they are only human!
Coincidentally, there are some notable HK legislators and business people whose track record was far from spectacular, or whose efforts did not attract the trust and admiration of ordinary HKers. A few averted controversy and with their connections earnt the praise of Beijing, and further entitlement through positions in various bodies of mainland government. It's all part of the way the CCP builds up its knowledge base of HK affairs and extends its influence.
The CE did not save face
On February 5, 2020, the CE appeared before the media cameras wearing a green face mask — and appealed to protesters to set aside their differences. “This is a time really for social cohesion, for getting our act together in order to fight this disease,” she said. She also lauded her government’s swift action. Truly, she did! “Since we were first notified of this virus in the last month or so, we have been very vigilant.” However, following the pattern of the last six months of 2019, many HK people feel the HK government response has been consistently too little and too late.
Lam only conceded to one of the anti-extradition bill protesters' 5 demands after massive protests and disruption across the city. The CE's appeal for unity this time round therefore generally fell on deaf ears. She and her government lackeys could only provide toothless health protection and social distancing guidelines that involved self-imposed quarantine - there was no mention of enforcement or penalty for those who wilfully refuse to obey the rules, or who lie about their movements and contacts.
In fact, in comparison of the HK government's handling of the face mask supply situation with the situation in Singapore and Taiwan, many HKers were frustrated and annoyed. Lam's flip flop in communicating messages about the wearing of face masks, and the perceived mismanagement of the crisis in turn has caused a wave of fresh anger against the HK government. There is criticism even from residents who previously supported the CE. Previously divided into blue and yellow factions, the pro-Beijing citizens of HK and those with democratic leanings increasingly find themselves agreeing on matters relating to Covid-19, and both are impatient with government and Lam. The outbreak has also inflamed tensions between HKers and mainlanders visiting the SAR or those mainlanders who for whatever reason choose to make the SAR their home.
It is assumed that we can at least trust our partners, our friends and our family. To those whom we feel the strongest bonds, we place our trust and believe they will bear our interests in mind when they venture out in the community. We know and they know that they could potentially become a carrier of the Covid-19 virus, perhaps through no fault of their own, or by carelessness or indifference to the pervasive, invisible health threat. We also trust those in the medical profession to do all that is humanly possible in light of Covid-19 and other persistent health threats in our communities, and with respect to their oaths and the limits of science and medicine. Like most of us, they have a job to do and a responsibility to ensure it is done well.
Of course we may not know who to trust, what to trust, when to trust, or how much we ought to trust. First and foremost we, each of us, have to trust in ourselves. There are times when we must trust our own instincts, our experience, or our own strengths. Can you resist temptation when it presents itself, keep your ego in check and think beyond your personal pleasure, goals and ambitions?
We all just wish that Carrie Lam and the HK government would understand and live up to the responsibility they have to the people of HK. It may be that Covid-19 will help initiate some kind of shake-down in governance and institutions in both HK and mainland China. Any thought that those in authority might "wake-up" given the challenge that such a serious health threat represents to China and HK is possibly being optimistic. There is hope that given a chance some form of democratic reform, governmental revision, purge or cleansing will eventually clear out the virus, sort out the mistrust, and establish the basis upon which there will be trust anew.
Also read our blog on the unique view of Human Rights being espoused by authorities in China.
Follow this link to read part 3 of this blog on the topic of trust.