March Madness

When news first came out that the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government was trying to persuade uniformed civilian organisations here to march in mainland style, reaction varied.

The first overwhelming thought in nearly everyone’s mind must have been sheer astonishment that such senior officials have nothing more important to do with their time.

One commentator in this newspaper said (correctly) that if this was an attempt by the mainland to win the hearts and minds of Hong Kong young people, then it would fail. A commentator in another media outlet took the opportunity in a light-hearted way to research different marching styles through the ages. In response on social media, there was inevitably a reference to one of the most famous comedy sketches of all time: who could ever forget the Monty Python episode where John Cleese played the part of an official from the Ministry of Silly Walks.

I must admit that was my first reaction too, but after a pause I thought more deeply and started to worry. The saga apparently began when the head of the Hong Kong Army Cadets Association, Bunny Chan Chung Bun, reportedly approached some other youth organisations whose members wear uniforms and where the activities include parades and marching. He is said to have asked them to consider adopting the goose-stepping style followed by some countries including China and ceasing to use the "arms swinging" method used by most western countries. (Chan has since denied making any such approach).

Whatever the origins, the subject was next definitely pursued at a meeting in the Liaison Office in early February attended by the Youth Department director general Chen Lin. Some organisations seem willing to go along, others are resisting strongly.

When I think back to the whole run-up to the handover in 1997, and the 20 years since, I cannot recall anyone raising such a trivial subject before. We have had a number of well publicised furores including such matters as national security legislation, national education, political reform and, most recently, the immigration co-location arrangements at the West Kowloon terminus of the high speed rail network.

Local people are free to agree or disagree with what has been proposed directly by the CPG or indirectly by the SAR government. For myself, I have always tried to see both sides of the argument before forming a final view.

On national security, for example, I entirely agree that we should have a set of clear modern laws covering treason, subversion and so on. It is not only our obligation to do so under Article 23 of the Basic Law, it is common sense and something every modern society has. And I have confidence that our legislators will do a good job balancing security needs with individual rights. Proper legislation would protect our freedom, not undermine it.

On national education, there is absolutely nothing wrong with children learning at school about the history of their own country. At the same time, preparation of the teaching materials must be handled carefully to ensure the course is about what actually happened rather than propaganda from one particular political perspective. Making those who maintain a particular stance responsible for the preparation of the course materials was bound to create suspicion. This matter was mis-handled last time, but we can and should do better.

I was very disappointed by the political reform package: it totally ignored all the many worthy and moderate suggestions for improving arrangements for the legislative council and advanced only ultra-cautious proposals for election of the chief executive. I remain convinced there was a deal there to be done, but nobody at the time seemed interested in meaningful discussion and compromise.

I recap these episodes to make a point. They were all very important, and the CPG and hence the Liaison Office had a legitimate interest in them. But I cannot for the life of me see a role for either of those bodies in deciding a matter as minor as how our boy scouts should conduct their parades.

So that is the first aspect to trouble me. Then there is the fact that the Liaison Office felt empowered to approach the organisations direct and call them to a meeting on its premises. Why not raise the point with the SAR Government first? These two aspects – deep involvement in a clearly local issue, and willingness to act directly-- taken together represent a clear breach of the One Country,Two Systems principle, Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong, and contradict several articles of the Basic Law.

What can we expect next? Will Beijing now approach the SAR government and propose a top-down approach to new marching arrangements, starting presumably with the police force? I would strongly advise resistance to any such approach. Relations between the force and our young people are still rather fragile. They are not going to be improved by having the men and women drill like Stormtroopers. And it would give foreign investors a serious dose of the heebie jeebies.

One last point: this might be a good time for the chief executive to remind the Liaison Office to stay out of local affairs. One Ministry of Silly Walks is surely enough.