Expressions and idiomatic turns of phrase are among the glories of language. Replete with vivid imagery and, in many cases, historical and cultural symbolism, they enable us to get points across with greater impact. Which is fine, unless you’re a senior Hong Kong official trying to conceal a truth and, indeed, convince all of us that the truth does not actually exist.
Over the weekend, Chinese academic-official Rao Geping spoke at a seminar on Hong Kong political reform not very subtly titled Back to the Basic Law. As the South China Morning Post put it, he ‘explicitly ruled out’ any form of open nomination for candidates in the Chief Executive election in 2017. It must be the millionth time we have heard this, and Chief Secretary Carrie Lam understandably wanted us once and for all to get it into our thick skulls.
In English, she might have said of Rao’s statement that we should ‘take it as written’ or ‘it is carved in stone’; speaking in Cantonese, she said – to use the Standard’s explanatory translation – he ‘set the tune of the gong with a final hit’. Most agree that she meant Rao’s words were as good as final on the matter. We know that the Standard understands it this way because its ‘Mary Ma’ editorial goes to great lengths to persuade us otherwise (sample arguments: Rao isn’t senior enough to deliver ‘final words’, and Lam may have been possessed by an unconscious desire for decisive government). Moderate pro-democrat figurehead and ex-Chief Secretary Anson Chan is in no doubt about it. And Lam implicitly confirms it through her own fulsome denials and insistence that the ongoing consultation on political reform is really, honestly, ever-so sincere. (The gentlemanly SCMP spares Lam her blushes by omitting all mention of a gong. Yesterday, it reported Lam as saying that Rao had ‘set the definitive tone’ on the issue, and today it obscures her comments even further by saying she mentioned ‘speakers’ setting ‘a’ definitive tone.)
So, to use a wonderful old English phrase, Lam let the cat out of the bag. In seeking to stuff it back in, or indeed to deny that one even got out, she is trying to maintain the fiction that a Communist one-party state can accommodate an unrigged nomination procedure if and when it no longer rigs the election.
How much of our policy discourse has to be rendered absurd by this insistence on believing – or appearing/pretending to believe – the fantasy that the Chinese Communist Party can relinquish control in areas vital to its own monopoly of power? The constant chatter about eventually making the Renminbi fully convertible assumes that what is fundamentally a dictatorship will leave an issue like the exchange rate or monetary policy to chance. It won’t; so, by extension, Shanghai/Qianhai/etc cannot genuinely have their ‘free trade’ zone-hubs. Yet how much blather does the press have to print on these things? The Leninist-cum-Qing paranoiac grip is so absolute that Beijing won’t let the Roman Catholic Church appoint its own bishops. The Boy Scouts are banned. Clearly, no-one who is not of the Party’s choosing can or will get on the ballot if Hong Kong is to elect its CE by universal suffrage. Why are we even discussing it?
As if from the mouths of babes and innocents, the SCMP hints at the same question today…