By John Burns
The Hong Kong government has lost all moral authority to lead. Rather, the government hides behind the police and press releases in response to escalating protests and violence.
Take one recent day, for example. On August 1, the government announced it had set up a relief fund for farmers, found malachite green in seafood, prosecuted a contractor for noise violations, and appointed some of us to the Cantonese Opera development fund advisory board. The government appealed for information about a missing person, opened provisional electoral registers for inspection and closed some beaches.
The government also warned civil servants not to participate in a protest scheduled for August 2. The Civil Service Bureau reminded civil servants to remain politically neutral. Stay united, the government said. The government also questioned the authorship of public statements on the crisis issued by Administrative Officers, Executive Officers, prosecutors, and other civil servants.
Curiously on August 2, the government had nothing to say about the unprecedented protest of tens of thousands of civil servants. Rather the government reported visa-free access to Iran, exceptionally hot weather and the reopening of some beaches.
The government labels the protests as “public order events,” “public events,” and “public processions,” the language of bureaucrats that denies their true purpose and identity. Does the government believe its own propaganda?
The government dwells in a parallel universe. Our government advisors only make things worse. On July 23 Regina Ip, in a Marie Antoinette moment, offered us HK$8,000 each, probably in the hope that we would go home and shut up.
On July 31 Maria Tam urged us to focus on the upcoming Policy Address. This, she said, would solve Hong Kong’s problems faster than a public inquiry that the public demands. The flame of protest is dying down, she advised. Apparently, these folks have no intention of holding the government to account.
The police should welcome a public inquiry. Surely, if they have behaved appropriately, an independent commission would exonerate and reaffirm their role and behaviour. Perhaps the police had good reasons for allowing protesters to break into and vandalise the Legislative Council Complex on July 1. And good reasons for cooperating with gangsters in Yuen Long to drive protesters away, in the apparent words of a Liaison Office functionary. We need to know.
In increasingly shrill public statements, the government urges the public and the civil service to stay united and to support the government’s work. The government repeats the definitions of political neutrality offered in the past.
The government urges us to “stand fast at our posts” because the economy is deteriorating. “The effective operation of our government and the provision of public services must not be affected by personal beliefs in order to avoid undermining public confidence…”
Oh, my… this public confidence the government cares about has vanished long ago. We see the government for what it is: unwilling to be held to account, bankrupt of ideas, and refusing to take action to acknowledge the chaos it has caused.
John Burns is an honorary professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong. He was dean of HKU’s Faculty of Social Sciences from 2011 to 2017, and is the author of titles such as Government Capacity and the Hong Kong Civil Service. He teaches courses and does research on comparative politics and public administration, specialising in China and Hong Kong.