We have a winner. Tacitus did write something vaguely along the lines that no-one cares whether policies are any good if the government is unpopular; he was referring to the Emperor Galba, of whom Wikipedia says:
…’In sexual matters he was more inclined to males, and then none but the hard bodied and those past their prime’ … was notoriously cruel throughout the Empire … levied massive taxes against areas that were slow to receive him as Emperor … sentenced many to death without trial … further disgusted the populace by his meanness … was entirely in the hands of favourites … was indolent and apathetic … put on a linen corset … around 120 people claimed the credit for killing [him]…
The origins of the ‘Tacitus trap’ are still unclear. I would guess Chinese propagandists picked up on it because, being ancient, it appeals as a sound, almost scientific, principle, yet is comfortably distant culturally, as if to say ‘obviously the well-established fact that people still hate an unpopular government even if the policies are good doesn’t apply to socialism with Chinese characteristics and the much-loved Communist Party, but it’s worth bearing in mind’.
Legislative Council President Tsang Yok-sing sees the Hong Kong government’s own ‘Tacitus trap’ arising from Paul Chan: people should like plans for more homes, yet they are absorbed with baiting the Development Secretary for his wife’s tiresome land holding. So we would expect Chan to be resigning around now. But no, Franklin Lam, non-executive member of the Executive Council is standing down instead. Like Chan/Chan’s wife, he executed a property transaction at an awkward time, leading to loud but unfounded charges of conflict of interest from Chief Executive CY Leung’s opponents, detractors and the usual range of useful idiots.
As noted a couple of years ago, Lam is unusual in that he has original ideas (nothing amazing, but in a universe of ex-bureaucrats and yes-men he shone). That said, several other thinking individuals have passed through Hong Kong’s prime policymaking body over the years, and how many clever initiatives have come out? One guy, Arthur Li, dreamed up kindergarten vouchers; that’s about as near to freakish genius it’s ever been.
Which is why, to those of us who value substance over style, the thesis of the ‘Tacitus trap’ remains unproven. CY is plainly an amateur by the standards of the Emperor Galba, and maybe his administration could yet be saved if it came out with some decent policy. By ‘decent’ I mean ‘popular because it benefits the community as a whole and – as glorious icing on the cake – causes intense pain to people we all hate’. Intelligent populism.
There is not enough bandwidth to list all the possible ideas, many of which are far from new, but to grab a few out of the air… Convert golf courses and Disneyland into housing and parks. Slap a big sales tax on luxuries to divert Mainland shoppers elsewhere. Freeze all civil service pay for a decade or two until private-sector remuneration catches up. Use 10 or 20 percent of the reserves to sort out the worst health/poverty/environment horrors. Force these tedious-sounding ‘elite’ schools to take 50% of their kids from public housing estates. Pedestrianize Central and Tsimshatsui during daytime. Abandon the Zhuhai bridge half-built and declare it the Donald Tsang Pink Dolphin Viewing Platform. Repeal all legal and administrative privileges for ‘indigenous’ New Territories residents. Bring Edward Snowden back and make him Police Commissioner; Ai Weiwei to run West Kowloon Themed Cultural Concept Hub Zone. Introduce a special anti-noise pollution law aimed at Rita Fan and Priscilla Leung. Require Vitasoy to reintroduce Mint-Choc flavour. Rename Shatin ‘City of the Lizard People’. Declare weekends open an hour earlier than usual…