What a magnificent line. I imagine it appearing in a 1950s black & white movie. “If they take down Elsie, we’re all doomed!” Perhaps Elsie is a local heroine in a frontier village, facing down the bullying, outlaw bad guys; or maybe she’s a Lassie-style canine valiantly guarding vulnerable young children from evildoers armed with paraquat.
In fact, the phrase in full is, “If they take down Elsie, they also take down the authority of the Basic Law and the central government.” It comes from Lau Nai-keung, mouth-frothing ultra-patriot and scourge of Hong Kong’s ‘dissidents’. He occasionally experiences spasms of lucidity, and has had a couple recently.
His China Daily column last week considered Executive Council member Franklin Lam, currently accused by government detractors of exploiting insider information about new taxes when timing the sale of several of his large collection of properties. Lau points out, as others have, that if Lam had no foreknowledge of the new taxes, his role in the government’s top policymaking body must be marginal.
Of course, it could be that Lam was excluded from discussions on the issue precisely because of his property interests. But this is really about the nature of Exco. It is a big, unwieldy group, and its composition (a DAB member here, a Liberal Party member there, a rural leader there, a businessman there) is the depressingly predictable result of box-ticking. Members are not there to influence policymaking but to share the blame for the subsequent screw-ups.
Lau also says that if Lam needed to raise funds to cover living costs and contingencies, it suggests the man must have had everything locked up in real estate. This might seem imprudent, but then again, we are not talking about some average Joe off the street. (If his recent sales were any guide, the portfolio’s total current valuation could be somewhere around HK$250-300 million – but that’s a big ‘if’.) Lam is part of a gold-plated ‘elite’ that – as Lau suggests – Hongkongers have long been brainwashed into thinking are superior and trustworthy as endorsers of government authority.
Which leads us to the magnificent fist-banging “If they bring down Elsie” outburst. Rather than ranting about the dreaded dissidents, Lau’s target here is the establishment of the aforementioned elites and the meek (unlike Elsie) patriots who cluster awkwardly around them. This is in fact a criticism of a decades-old political structure, which is why Lau dusts off a familiar old friend, the administrative absorption of politics. The old colonial approach of co-opting elites to go along with the bureaucracy’s decisions doesn’t work anymore, Lau says. We need gloves-off politics: open competition, indeed combat, between ideas for all the world to see and judge.
Thus, rather than trot out the usual ‘correct procedures were followed’ claptrap about Lung Mei beach, the administration should see trouble coming, and let the environmentalists fight it out with the landowners/developers/bureaucrats. And ditto with every other development plan, from the desperately needed to the pointless. Thus, rather than duck a debate on gay marriage, the establishment should put the spotlight on the self-appointed defenders of liberty to see what they really think, and let them lead or squirm as required. Thus, rather than blather about the importance of rule of law, the government – especially the truly pro-Beijing elements – should defend former Justice Secretary Elsie Leung. Be consistent and honest, and confirm she is right that the one-party system cannot and does not allow totally unfettered judicial independence in Hong Kong. Instead, Lau notes with disgust, Elsie’s current-day successor makes remarks that conflict with those of Mainland legal officials and local patriotic lawyers and so “encourages mistrust and abuse towards opinions from the mainland and the pro-establishment camp.”
Essentially, Lau is saying ‘let’s fight democracy with democracy’. The pro-communist tyrant in him might envisage a cleansing Cultural Revolution that eradicates alien ideas from Hong Kong forever. The mild-mannered, intellectual, organic-food fan in him – assuming he’s been taking his pills – might actually believe a fair adversarial process would result in the popular will backing his side, not the pro-dems’ (or the tycoons’, or the bureaucrats’, etc).
It would be refreshing to ditch all this tiresome harmony and consensus and the happy, smiling committees of united pen-pushers, bean-counters, rich offspring, grasping developers and grumpy aboriginal granddads, all pretending to love Hong Kong. Cut the pretention and the hypocrisy. Side with Elsie and see if the dissidents really can bring her down, along with all the other dominoes as well. But, unfortunately – surprise, surprise – Beijing won’t allow it.