One of my favourite movies is “A man for all seasons”. Although this was made in the 60s it has lasted well – all the costumes are 16th century. It can be viewed – with commercial interruptions alas – here…
The interesting thing about this film is that it is not about love, power, revenge or any of the other usual themes. It is about the downfall of Thomas More. Sir Thomas, as he then was, was Chancellor when Henry VIII decided to divorce his first wife. As the Pope refused to go along with this Henry appointed himself Supreme Head of the Church of England and the English Parliament duly passed a statute to this effect. This is how England stopped being a Catholic country. All office-holders were required to swear an oath indicating their support for the new arrangement. More then resigned.
Unfortunately this did not suffice – he was a public intellectual of international importance and his refusal to support the new arrangement was a problem. So he was pressed to subscribe to the new oath anyway, and still refused. Eventually he was subjected to a blatantly fixed trial and executed for treason. So the basic theme is a thoroughly unmodern one: a man who would rather die than swear an oath of support for something he does not believe in.
This is such an alien and interesting concept that I often show the last 30 minutes of the film to my students, on the rather flimsy pretext that it shows the basic structure of a trial in the common law tradition – prosecution, witness, cross-examination, defendant, verdict, sentence and such. But of course one of the reasons why this is an alien and interesting concept is that we no longer feel the same way about oaths. More says that an oath is “a promise you make to God”, and believes that if you make a false promise to God you will go to Hell. Even in America, where God is still a popular figure whose assistance is sought by oath-takers (“so help me God”) that would probably be a minority view now.
In China, God has been abolished. Marxism is atheistic. That is not necessarily a criticism. Some peo0ple would say that it was one of Marxism’s few points of contact with reality. But with no God and no Hell the significance of oaths is unavoidably much eroded, and you rather wonder why they bother. Well we know why they bother with the Legco oath: because it was already there. Suitably amended, it is the oath people used to take when working on the old colonial Legco. When they were all appointed the oath was in a way quite unnecessary – no Governor would appoint a non-supporter. And indeed there is no sign of the new one being intended to have any very serious purpose, still less to act as a barrier to people with inconvenient political views, as it is being used now. The mainstream interpretation used to be the one offered by Philip Bowring some time ago – the oath amounts to no more than a promise to uphold the law while it is the law. It does not preclude the desire for changes.
This has been turned into a centre of political contention by the Liaison Office stooges, on whose behalf a four-point plan to put obstacles in the way of independent-minded candidates was outlined weeks ago in the China Daily. So far this has not gone too well. Disqualifying candidates merely resulted in their equally unwelcome replacements being elected. The electors were not helpful. Still to come we have a procedure by which a member can be excluded by a two-thirds vote of the other members. If the pro-government camp does not command a two-thirds majority – as it won’t if all those elected are actually seated – then this is not going to work either. So for some people the oath is the last chance to follow orders and see that nobody is allowed in Legco who speaks, thinks or even dreams about an independent Hongkong.
The result has been an intermittently entertaining squabble in which a few clear points can be determined. One is that neutrals want to keep out of this. The Legco Secretariat is supposed to be the impartial servant of all members, not a branch of the government. It seems the complaint that the Secretariat “betrayed” a democrat and then cosseted a pro-establishment replacement in the chair is now being diluted somewhat. So we can perhaps put this down to a misunderstanding or a genuine change of view after second thoughts. It is difficult to be so forgiving about reports that the secretary-general rejected some oaths on the grounds that the oath-takers “did not seem to understand” the oath. This is none of his business. The gentleman concerned needs to confine himself to his proper functions.
So we can perhaps put this down to a misunderstanding or a genuine change of view after second thoughts. It is difficult to be so forgiving about reports that the secretary-general rejected some oaths on the grounds that the oath-takers “did not seem to understand” the oath. This is none of his business. The gentleman concerned needs to confine himself to his proper functions.
This brings me to the second landmark, which is that the oath is a legal requirement, not a political one. This means that what the oath taker understands or intends by it is not relevant. That is a matter for the member and his electors. The only requirement is that he or she should read the words on the card. There are no grounds for censoring the oath-takers’ clothing, however offensive the wording printed on it, or their accents. There may be room for argument about extreme slow motion, or about the interesting mispronunciations of Ms Yau Wai-ching, who seems to be trying to do for Hong Kong politics what Gordon Ramsay did for television cookery programmes. But the requirement is that the member reads the words. What he or she says before or afterwards is also not relevant.
I understand the reluctance of some new members to engage in what looks suspiciously like a kow tow to a regime they disapprove of. But you knew you were going to have to do this if you won. So get on with it.