The original bland, all-purpose, bureaucrat-produced ads pushing the Hong Kong government’s proposed political non-reforms for 2012 were, if noticed at all, greeted with shrugs and yawns. They then gave way to something visibly more professional – the exciting ‘complete the word’ concept and the TV commercials with the dancers and dresses. Now, just a few weeks later, a third campaign hits the Big Lychee’s TV screens and billboards. Weigh Anchor! Let’s Act! (Is the maritime nature of the Chinese slogan designed to be an allusion to the harbour for which the city is named? Everyone I ask says it was the last thing that would have occurred to them.)
To launch this sudden re-branding exercise, top officials sporting unbecoming T-shirts made an unannounced, hence protestor-free, open-topped bus tour, waving to nonplussed onlookers. Press and other people who didn’t make it will be delighted to learn that they can collect and keep a set of 17 commemorative photographs, showing just about every minister in Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s cabinet handing out leaflets to housewives, children and playful puppy dogs.
The new TV commercial features non-executive cabinet members jollying us along to support the reform-lite package. Maybe the sight of former Equal Opportunities Commissioner Anna Wu sitting rather forlornly on her sturdy sofa will provoke a pang of sympathy within the more soft-hearted among us, but an appeal from Ronald Arculli – the administration’s ultimate parrot-poodle-puppet – is hardly likely to sway the masses.
This new push reverts a bit in tone to the first round of the campaign: the traditional, formulaic and condescending publicity crafted by civil servants. This suggests that it was ordered at short notice by an increasingly desperate Sir Bow-Tie petrified that his package will fail to get through the Legislative Council next month.
This communication style has its roots in government propaganda back in the 1950s, when newly arrived, illiterate refugees fresh out of the paddy fields had to be instructed on the extreme basics of hygiene, road safety and the rest of city life. Today’s bureaucrats seem to cling to it because the colonial/Confucian tone of official pronouncements confirms, in their own minds, their rank and role over the populace. And perhaps there is a medium-is-the-message aspect to it: you can’t tell people they’re too infantile to vote if you’re addressing them as adults.
Still, Donald’s growing despair can be detected in occasional flashes of straight talk in the Letter to Hong Kong he delivered on RTHK Radio 3 yesterday. Although he insists that the package has public support, he admits that it is “a far cry from full democracy.” It comprises “interim arrangements” (a new phrase for it) and “effectively prevents any future increase in the number of conventional FC seats representing specific sectors or interest groups” (which I don’t recall being explicitly stated before).
There is a sense of frustration here in the form of a veiled accusation: someone else screwed up in proposing the first package devoid of reform in 2005 for 2008 and in resurrecting it this time around. As he puts it: “This is the most democratic form of indirect election we can design within the confines of the 2007 decision of the Central Government.” (Technically it was the decision of the rubber-stamp Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, though Donald is correct in saying who was really responsible.)
Essentially, what seems to have happened is this. After the popular uprising in 2003 and the eventual, consequent removal of Tung Chee-hwa in 2005, Beijing decided to teach Hong Kong a lesson by tightly re-defining the limits of forthcoming political reform. The rejection of the 2008 package in 2005 strengthened the resolve of hardliners to discipline the wayward city. But now, after warnings from Donald and others about declining governability, the Chinese leaders are having second thoughts. To save face, they need to get this minimalist package through, because they can’t admit they were wrong. Then next time we can have, as Donald would say, “a more democratic form of indirect election.”
The pro-democrats, meanwhile, are on a different planet, seeking full, genuine suffrage and thus the right to elect a potential challenger to Communist Party power. And the civil servants at the Information Services Department, presumably working on a fourth new-look, new-theme, new-slogan ad campaign to be squeezed into the second week of June, are off in another universe.