We’re pleased to announce that Paper Tigress, Rachel Cartland’s memoir of her years in the Hong Kong government, sold out. And it’s now reprinted and is back in the shops.
To mark the occasion, we print below the text of a speech Rachel gave to a Hong Kong business group late last year.
A Difficult Passage
I was a Hong Kong civil servant, a member of the Administrative Grade, from 1972 until 2006. So all you taxpayers funded my salary for all those years and I hope that I gave you value for money.
In May I gave a speech to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. The title of my address to the FCC was “Has Hong Kong Become Ungovernable?” and the answer was a fairly unqualified “yes”.
It would be unconscionably lazy even if tempting just to repeat that FCC speech but I would like to quote a few sentences from it which sum up what I still believe to be the systemic failings in our political system which are causing us all to suffer:
“During my time in Hong Kong we have gone from a Legislative Council wholly appointed by the Governor to one in which the entire membership stands ever poised to provide the disloyal Opposition to the Chief Executive, who is specifically required to have no political party to support him. Within the Legislative Council there are representatives of the functional constituencies, some of which are rotten boroughs as bad and self-interested as anything that tainted nineteenth century England could come up with and directly elected members who get there thanks to a particularly peculiar proportional list system which is skewed towards ensuring that more radical candidates will get a seat.”
Another reason that I have for not wanting to reprise that FCC speech is that it caused me a lot of trouble. I was interviewed about it by a charming young man from the SCMP afterwards and his report was a pretty good effort apart from confusing “rotten boroughs” with “robber barons” and also liberally deploying a metaphor that I had used about there having been in effect a wicked godmother hovering over the cradle of the infant SAR. It went up on the online version of the Post which I don’t have but I realised that something was amiss when I got an e-mail from a friend in UK with the subject line, “Cat. Pigeons. Among.”. I asked the Charming Young Reporter to give me a link to the article but he demurred. “Oh, Mrs. Cartland, I am afraid you will be upset by the unkind comments.” When I finally got to read them, I didn’t feel at all wounded as they were basically utterly bonkers and bore no relationship to what I had actually said.
I was castigated as an old Colonial and told to return to my homeland, accused of badmouthing China and of being responsible for the failure to introduce democracy during 100+ years of British oppression of Hong Kong. In fact, I had avoided assigning blame for the constitutional debacle which confronts us. It is, as it happens, my opinion that the roots of our troubles lie in bad moves made by the Brits and they did it by introducing too much democracy rather than not enough. In the 1980s there was a view in the British press, public and parliament that the people of Hong Kong had been let down by the settlement reached with China on their future. The response was a classic British fudge or compromise, trying to make LegCo look more democratic by adding in the functional constituencies and gradually some directly elected members. Those of us who were civil servants at the time could cope basically because enough of the old ethos remained that kept people broadly polite and with an understanding that there was a common intention to get legislation through, pass the Budget and so on. As we can see on our TV screens every day when LegCo is in session things are a bit different now. If we had a system that gave the Chief Executive some sort of whip to crack or sweets to hand out we might see more constructive behaviour but our flawed system does not allow this and we have become worryingly dependent on the resilience and quick wittedness of one man: Tsang Yok Sing the President of the Legislative Council.
The old English saying “it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good” seems to be applicable to the present crisis which must, for example, have been good for newspapers’ revenue figures what with all the full page advertisements being taken out. To the best of my knowledge, the first of these was on 11 June this year and was issued on behalf of various Chambers of Commerce. Its theme was, of course, Anti Occupy Central but what struck me about it was how often the statement emphasised the signatories’ interest in business and the economy and, conversely, their lack of interest in politics. This strikes me as very odd. I believe that recently there have been a whole lot of blokes kicking around a ball in Brazil. I know Germany came out on top but otherwise I’m quite ignorant of the details. I’m sure though that if I felt that my future well-being depended on it I’d be familiar with every moment of every match of the FIFA World Cup. And let’s not fool ourselves. This current Hong Kong crisis is long drawn out rather than short and sharp but as historian Jason Wordie says, this is an “emerging political disaster” that stands comparison with the 1967 riots. In these circumstances I think that everyone should develop an interest in local political and constitutional affairs, even if there is an understandable reluctance to grapple with such a dry and complex subject.
I would like to suggest some principles with which to approach our present difficulties. Perhaps you will agree with them, perhaps you will not but they are what I honestly believe.
The first is a quotation from an African American poetess, Maya Angelou. She said “as human beings we are more alike than we are unalike.” And that means everybody: fat cat businessmen, pimply schoolboys who want to occupy Central, Filipina maids, Anglican archbishops and Mainland tourists who are pushing, shoving and encouraging their kids to pee in the gutter. If you think that it is asking a lot of your tolerance to view all these sympathetically just think of my own pain as I watch the TV news and see people that I used to work with and know all too well now sitting in the seats of power where I have well founded doubts about their ability to perform capably. These days I feel free to get involved in all sorts of social causes and protests against the government. One of my fellow activists said one day in an off hand way: “of course, all the civil servants are evil and stupid”. No, really they’re not, though I will readily acknowledge that they’ve lost a lot of the dynamism that characterised the glorious days of the 1970s and 80s when we laid the foundations for modern Hong Kong. And I still believe that one can’t tackle failings in civil servants, whether individual or collective, without tackling the system which currently stifles and hampers them.
The second principle is that there are some things worth fighting for. I think that a lot of us appreciate a lot of things about Hong Kong apart from the low tax rates and the mostly efficient MTR. I have in mind things like the rule of law, a basically trustworthy police force, free press, freedom of expression etc. There are good reasons why twenty per cent of the legal profession came out to protest against a White Paper issued by the Beijing Government that as far as they, and the Bar Association, were concerned, cast a shadow on the sacred principle that the judiciary should be independent of the administration.
The third principle is “the only way is democracy”. Sometimes when people hanker for the “good old days” of Hong Kong they associate its success then with the fact that its system was not democratic. It was, however, linked to a democracy albeit with a long, loose cord and questions could be, and would be, asked in the British Parliament if things were not going well here. We have been promised democracy and that is what we expect. Grudging acceptance may resort to Churchill’s famous remark that “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Yet democracy surely merits rather more robust support than that. After all, just think about it: in what sort of countries do the elite from non-democratic countries want to send their children to for their education, locate their own bolt holes etc. etc.? Yes, democracies of course. And there’s more to it than that. Which sort of countries dominate international tables of liveable, high achieving societies? Yes, democracies of course. The 2012 Legatum Prosperity Index was topped by Norway, as it had been for a number of years. Hong Kong was placed eighteenth but the compilers of the Index noted that 27 of its top thirty were democracies. Other forms of government may provide a better, even if less secure, life for the wealthy few but, overall, democracies are stable societies where tensions can be vented at the ballot box rather than, sooner or later, in revolution on the streets.
The fourth and final principle is “don’t be a useful idiot”. This was, of course, the, term used by the Soviets in the 1930s and perhaps by Lenin himself, to describe those naive Westerners who blinded themselves to what was going on and became dupes of the Communists. While not denying the humanity of the 1.4 billion population of China (see principle one, after all), we should not forget that China is a command society, with its leaders setting out to manipulate events and people so as to achieve the desired ends. Also, many of those 1.4 billion people will have been brought up to view history and current events through a Marxist perspective of class and anti-West struggle and a proportion will totally accept this interpretation. I believe that the year 2003 marked a significant watershed in China’s attitude towards Hong Kong. Very much rattled by the mass demonstration over the Article 23 legislation their focus on our community and the wish to control it has become stronger over the subsequent years.
These “principles” are just thoughts. You can agree or disagree with them but you can’t disprove them. Perhaps to be fair I should venture into the foolish realms of prediction and say something where I can be shown in due course to be totally wrong. So, OK, I don’t think that Occupy Central will prove to be very significant. I’m mildly in favour of the movement because I believe that it has helped the community to concentrate more on the necessary political debate and I’m somewhat against because I think that it attempts the impossible of reducing a complex process of negotiation to a slogan on a placard that can be marched behind. Civil disobedience has proved an effective tool for achieving all sorts of worthwhile ends but not, I fancy, this time around. On the other hand, I see much of the reaction to the movement as verging on the hysterical. I well remember that three years ago the City of London was in the grip of Occupy London: they obligingly managed not to take over the front of St. Paul’s Cathedral until a few months after our daughter had got married inside that ancient building. Does anybody seriously think that that or Occupy Wall Street were genuine threats to the pre-eminence of London or New York as international financial centres? The police forces in those two cities may be OK but I think that ours here in Hong Kong is miles better. Our police say that they can cope with anything dreamt up by the Occupy Central movement and I believe them. My guess is that the only real danger is that this may become a pretext to justify more heavy handed intervention in our own conduct of our affairs.
My internet critics did, it must be admitted, have a few telling points. They accused me of having no solutions to offer and that is true. My response is that although the situation is urgent we do still have time and, after all, modern history is littered with tragedies brought about by hasty actions taken on the basis of inadequate research and careless stereotyping. These we should surely avoid at all costs.
Of course, it will be difficult. The situation is a bit reminiscent of the hoary old joke about asking an Irishman for directions and getting the reply “Well, sorr, I wouldn’t start from here.” It seems odd that it has been announced that the composition of LegCo will be left unchanged for the time being when that is such a weak aspect of the present system. Hon. James Tien who, frankly, in the past sometimes just seemed to want to “bash the unpatriotic civil servants” as the answer to everything is now a bit more analytical and has recently pointed out the problems inherent in not allowing the Chief Executive to be linked to a political party. Occupy Central have made rather incoherent calls for the Chief Executive to be selected on the basis of “public nomination” and for election proposals to meet “international standards”. It is not altogether surprising that the Chinese ambassador to the UK felt able to write a lofty, one might say, snooty article in the Financial Times denouncing these views. However, it’s worth bearing in mind what surely lies behind those incoherent calls. Isn’t it fear of being given an unreal choice, an election that looks like an election but ends up with the people of Hong Kong yet again having a Chief Executive foisted on them rather than being really allowed to choose?
The parts of my career that I remember with great affection were marked by a truly constructive partnership between the businesspeople of Hong Kong and the other components of the community, including the government. Isn’t this what we should seek to re-build as a firm platform for going forward?
I’m sorry I missed Mrs Cartland’s speech at the FCC – it seems to me that her comments are very perceptive: in particular the dependence of the current system on Jasper Tsang Yok Sing for its smooth running (or even for its running at all). As a HK Permanent Resident and voter, and as someone who was very active in the Occupy protests (next court case 26/5), it troubles me greatly to contemplate what may happen when he retires or otherwise exits the political scene.
It is easy to observe that the current political system is horribly broken; working out how to fix it is hard. Unfortunately, HK’s brightest people are far from the political scene, making their fortunes in real estate and such like. One of the good aspects of Singapore’s approach to this problem is that it makes a political career attractive to its brightest and best in a way that HK singularly fails to do. Until we can work out how to get some of our really smart people into positions of political leadership I fear that life for most people here is unlikely to improve.
What a great pleasure to read such a thoughtful response! May the debate continue. Surely Hong Kong with its history of energy and record of success against the odds will not fail even if this is its biggest challenge ever!