One evening in November 1963, I was with friends at a youth club in Horsham, a town in the south of England, when another friend, arriving late, burst in to announce: ‘They’ve shot President Kennedy.’ The shock was massive and global. Kennedy, who had been elected president at the age of 43, was only 46 when he died.
What was interesting in retrospect was the friend’s choice of words. He referred to a vague ‘they’ as the culprits.
Very soon, everyone knew that the assassin was a former US Marine, Lee Harvey Oswald, who had defected to the Soviet Union, subsequently returning to the United States with a Russian wife. Oswald was charged with murdering President Kennedy, a charge that he denied, but only two days later while being transferred from police custody to gaol, Oswald himself was murdered by nightclub owner, Jack Ruby.
Ruby was found guilty of murdering Oswald, but had his conviction overturned on appeal. A new trial date was set but Ruby died in gaol of lung cancer before the trial could take place.
Conspiracy theories suggesting culprits other than, or in addition to, Oswald began to circulate. The US House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded in their report that the President was ‘probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy’, a conclusion, although densely argued at considerable length, broadly similar to the spontaneous outburst of my friend. ‘They’ did it. Others theorists were more specific. Among those mentioned were the CIA, the Mafia, Fidel Castro, the President of Cuba, and the KGB.
In troubled times, and sometimes in not so troubled times, there is a common tendency to view events as the product of shadowy and sinister conspiracies. Before moving to Hong Kong, and in the days before the collapse of the USSR, I was acquainted with an otherwise highly intelligent PR consultant, who was convinced that a then popular campaign in support of what we would now call craft beer, was a Communist conspiracy to destroy Britain’s brewing industry. His remedies amounted to sorting through dustbins and similar stratagems to discover secret communications between the campaigners and Moscow. On this issue he was, of course, completely bonkers.
Closely related to conspiracy theory is the attribution of malign practices to demonised groups: big business, government, immigrants, capitalists, communists; or disagreeable social characteristics to a people; in the case of the UK, it is often the French. In the context of Hong Kong it is often perceived to be ‘Beijing’.
The challenge presented by conspiracy theorists and demonisers alike is that their beliefs are often deeply and emotionally held, thus not easily susceptible to rational discussion. This is certainly the case in Hong Kong, with the Government and Legco divided by irreconcilable differences marked by filibusters and emotional outbursts. Not much work gets done. And some frustrated Hong Kongers turn to radical solutions and thoughts of independence from China.
To assess whether or not people in the territory perceive a constructive way forward, I have conducted a survey, which arrives with the usual disclaimer: it would not meet the standards of professional pollsters. It does, however, arrive with the assurance that it is unfiltered by either self-censorship or political correctness. It consisted of three open-ended questions:
- What make you optimistic about the future of Hong Kong?
- And what makes you pessimistic?
- Given the opportunity, what single policy change would you make to improve Hong Kong’s future prospects?
This is a summary of the results:
There was a broad consensus that Hong Kong people have many fine qualities, defined as an ability to get on and make things happen in a society that is ‘more aware’ and less supine. As another respondent put it: their basic decency is admired plus ‘the impossibility of being deceived by government whether elected or not’. The concept of ‘good sense’ was also mentioned, with one person praising the territory’s ‘liberal values’ that emphasise tolerance, fair treatment of individuals and the expression of a broad range of views.
As evidence for these qualities, one person noted that the territory had been written off many times and had still emerged to beat the odds. Another respondent referred to the quality of the people’s response to the Asian financial crisis and the outbreak of SARS.
Also endorsing the concept of a ‘more aware’ society, one return praised the small organisations and individuals who concern themselves with environmental protection, recycling, heritage conservation and animal welfare.
Other sources of optimism were either constitutional, the rule of law, or geographical, location in a part of the world that is on the rise both economically and culturally.
There’s a lot of it about. One respondent commented generally that they felt ‘down on Hong Kong’ and could not find much to say that was optimistic.
Others expressed strong views about the Government. The quality and competence of officials and political appointees were either seriously questioned or derided. They were perceived to be more interested in second guessing Beijing’s wishes than working for the interests of the people of Hong Kong. One return made reference to ‘toadies and second guessers’. Another spoke of their ‘narrow-mindedness’, while yet another bemoaned their ‘smothering’ of opportunity.
Second-guessing and shoe shining were charges also leveled at some media outlets and some members of the business community.
Smaller businesses reported increasing difficulty in finding local staff that can communicate effectively in English, while the lack of government investment in improving the situation was decried. Another found the greed of landlords such that he urged serious consideration of rent controls.
A wider and more general disappearance of people of high calibre was perceived, along with a general deterioration of the ‘ME’ generation.
The widening gap between the rich and poor, the lack of social welfare and a fairer tax system were all cited as causes of concern.
Economic and fiscal measures were high on the list of many. One respondent was quite explicit: ‘get the rich to pay some taxes’, as many of them lived off tax-free dividends. The remedy: reduce corporate rates by two percentage points to bring them below personal rates and introduce a tax of between 2-4 percent on dividends. It was also suggested that the Revenue should take a closer look at expenses passed through companies’ accounts. The often-discussed sales tax was opposed, as being expensive to administer and biased against the poorer members of the community.
A pension scheme was supported, with one return suggesting it should be means tested, while another insisted it be immune to the current offsetting scheme, out of reach of employers’ influence, and subject to strictly controlled management fees.
Another perceived priority was to focus public spending on Hong Kong infrastructure and citizens, and not on China; and that we should teach our children to be international. There was support for increased investment in English language training.
There was a call for electoral reform, and a more detailed proposal for the abolition of functional constituencies in Legco and open election for all Legco seats.
There were two proposals for government reform. The first was to reduce the role of Hong Kong’s government (less expansionary approach to the creation of detailed rules and regulation, no ‘picking winners’, forget Government knows best etc) and a focus on only those areas essential to the well-being of residents and businesses in Hong Kong.
The second would entail a reversal of the Government’s top-down approach
to policy making that entails the driving of policy through (less than competent) political appointees under the direction of the Chief Executive; and instead adopting a bottom-up approach by politically neutral civil servants who are acquainted with the needs of Hong Kong people what legislation is likely to work in practice. On the subject of the law, one respondent advocated entrenching the rule of law beyond 2047.
More effective urban planning was urged to make residents’ lives more agreeable with improved public transport, wider walkways, traffic calming measures and height restrictions on new buildings.
Another radical proposal was to create an extra leg for Hong Kong’s economy by turning the city into Asia’s cultural hub. This would be an inspiration for future generations and supported by appropriate educational and training hardware.
Somebody, I cannot now remember who it was, once said there were two approaches to history: the cock-up and the conspiracy, the former being seen as incompetence, ignorance and happenstance at work, while the latter seeing it as a process of intrigue. It looks as though many in Hong Kong regard it as a mix of both. But what is quite clear is that many people have a clear view of measures that could be taken to improve the outlook for Hong Kong. All it needs is a government that takes notice and is up to the job.