Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Art of Arbitrary

One of the most difficult obstacles to overcome in understanding Chinese politics is perhaps its arbitrariness. Words from the leaders can often be interpreted in so many ways that are more than enough to confuse. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao's speech on democracy and political reform at the Royal Society in London on 27 June was no exception.

I don't know how other China observers would interpret Mr Wen's repeated call for political reform. But his speech seemed to have delivered two unsung messages.

For the sceptics, Mr Wen's pledge for political reform was little more than rhetoric, because whether his words would translate into action -- and how -- remains to be seen.

What seems more intriguing is that this was not his first call for political reform, and there has been little, if any, mention, follow-up or elaboration in the Chinese press. For example, Mr Wen's remarks on democracy and socialism were even omitted in the pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po in Hong Kong. Of course this might be a biased and poorly informed impression because I do not have the leisure of time and effort to monitor every single piece of news in the Mainland. But given what I have read, this is a general impression that keeps being reinforced every now and then.

A natural question of this puzzling phenomenon is: Why? Why Mr Wen's well-intended words seem to have fallen to deaf ears? Why are the Chinese press reluctant to report the premier's remarks?

This is where speculation flares up because no one ever in China seems to know a credible answer, as if it ever existed. One explanation, as the China editor of the South China Morning Post writes today, is the "conflict of ideology" within the party. While I concur with this view, which seems sensible and too obvious to ignore, Mr Wen's remarks may also hint at other less explicit messages.

One of them could point to Mr Wen's frustration with the slow progress, if any, of political reform within the party. Despite the presence of universal suffrage at grassroot levels, it is far from uncommon to see allegations of bribery, blackmail or intimidation of the electorate or even individual candidates in media reports. Signs of substantial reform at municipal level or above are virtually non-existent. Words without any backup of action will never be taken seriously. This is especially true if Mr Wen's role were to present to the rest of the world a more desirable image of China as being credible and responsible.

More importantly, what Mr Wen meant by "min zhu" and "fa zhi" must not be taken for granted. Democracy is translated into "min zhu" in Chinese, but these words are not new creations of late imperial China. Confucian philosopher Mencius had preached in similar words respect for the people and the public will some two millennia ago. But do we know if Mr Wen was referring to the principles of democracy, as defined in Western context as many of us here in Hong Kong wishfully assume? According to the logic of the Chinese communists, any reform or innovation must not challenge in one way or another the unrivalled supremacy of the communist rule. Even though we know Mr Wen is one of the few liberal-minded leaders in Beijing, how liberal actually is he? Do we know if his view can be seriously taken as official or little more than a personal sigh of frustration?

By the same token, "fa zhi" is ambiguous because it could mean either "rule of law" or "rule by law", at least literally. The omission of preposition in the Chinese language can make a huge difference, if contradiction, in meaning. In Hong Kong, we have taken "fa zhi" for granted to refer to the British system of "rule of law", but how can we assume or assure that our compatriots in Mainland China share the same conception? Do we know whether or not the communist leaders understand this nuance that is lost in the English-Chinese translation? How willing are they to embrace the British rather than the Chinese interpretation? Until these questions are answered can we assume Mr Wen was referring to "rule of law" instead of "rule by law" in his speech, as the South China Morning Post reported on 28 June.

Monday, 6 June 2011

The City of Blunder

Months have passed since Financial Secretary John Tsang announced his fourth budget for the financial year of 2011-2012. Perhaps it seems a bit too late to jump on the bandwagon to add fuel to the vehement criticisms of the administration, but the dramatic events that unfolded were truly astounding. More importantly, however, it served as yet another deafening alarm calling for deep reflections on the aggravating crisis of Hong Kong.

As some scholars and financial professionals have pointed out, the biggest problem of the Hong Kong administration exposed in the current farce is that it seems to have voluntarily given up the long-standing guiding principles of public finance management to the agenda of the populist politicians – be they the pro-Beijing conservatives or the pro-democracy factions. As we can see in their response to the first budget speech delivered on 23 February, those ladies and gentlemen do not seem to look very much different from the senior government leaders in terms of the length of vision, if any, and their know-how about good governance.

Notwithstanding the differences in political systems across cultures and territories, governance is all about effective and efficient use of public resources for the long-term and sustainable well-being of the community at large. In societies like Hong Kong where the wealth gap has been widening at alarming speed, a more egalitarian and reasonable re-distribution of wealth naturally becomes a pressing priority for any responsible government. As history evidently shows, discontent and grievances left unaddressed or inadequately so often become the breeding ground of even more serious problems that eventually prove to be devastating.

Undoubtedly there are myriad ways of re-distributing wealth for greater social justice, but do cash give-outs qualify so?

Administrative details of the cash payouts have yet to be announced after months of the initial but hasty announcement. Ladies and gentlemen, don't you agree that the indefinite delay has already conveyed a strong message about the quality of governance here in Hong Kong?

A Not So Perfect End, But Nearly So

Since mid-March I have been concentrating on the final papers and paid virtually no attention to what happened around me. To be more precise, I simply did not have time to express my feelings and thoughts, even though I did continue to read the newspapers and attended the Arts Festival and Film Festival.

In retrospect, the process was far more stressful and painstaking than it was in the first term. Not surprisingly, no one shares greater blame than me. Procrastination was merely a symptom rather than a root cause of the lack of motivation. Missing the opportunity to secure a place in the next step of the academic ladder makes every effort to ensure a perfect grade almost meaningless other than self-actualisation. But what kind of self-actualisation is it if it were not measured by the substantial progress towards realisation of the long-term goal but the grade point average on paper?

The lack of motivation and subsequent procrastination was just one side of the story. Apart from that, the lack of interest in some of the courses taken made them even more difficult to concentrate, let alone excel. I must confess that the current grades obtained were more the result of pure luck rather than a truthful indication of the level of my academic and intellectual capabilities. Most marking schemes are designed to compare and rank any group of students at a certain point of time. Few are rigid scales of measuring capabilities in absolute terms. In fact, whether one can score high in liberal arts are dependent on a number of variables, not so much on the volume of information one presents but his/her analytical skills and articulation. Again, these are often measured by subjective preference of the assessor instead of any objective benchmark. As the old Chinese saying goes, "Championship hardly exists in liberal arts and first runner-up in martial arts", it is by no means easy to determine who is better, let alone the best, in liberal arts. It is therefore more a question of luck than capability to meet someone who finds your work more plausible than someone else's.

Given the amount of effort and time devoted and the level of genuine interest in the curriculum, I should be satisfied with the current achievement. The shortfall of 0.0375 is more a compliment than anything else. But honestly, I still can't help being disappointed at the missed opportunity of taking a step farther towards the ultimate goal, to which the current result would surely be helpful. While it is not necessarily a bad thing to take a detour, either for economic reason or to allow more time to explore the possibilities and identify the best option, for some reason a strong sense of grievance lingers on. The hard feeling that the academic results should be fully utilised to support my long-standing pursuit rather than shelved may take quite a while to overcome. Perhaps I just need to be a bit more patient to let things unfold and prepare to take them as they are.