"If you want to read a blog to get a sense of what is going on in Hong Kong these days or a blog that would tell you what life was like living in colonial Hong Kong, this blog, WALTER'S BLOG, fits the bill." Hong Kong Blog Review
A disagreeable spat has broken out in Hong Kong. Name calling, threats to kill and celebrations of a suicide. It’s a childish, undignified spectacle, tinged with mutual hatred. With the Occupy movement, a large brick got thrown into the pond of Hong Kong politics. Ripples from that continue to radiate out. Unforeseen consequences tear at our polarised society. A reasoned discussion has halted, replaced by vitriol.
On one side, we have a deluded subset from the failed Occupy movement. They purport to seek independence for Hong Kong. Beyond that rather simple statement, they offer no realistic scenario. How is this to work? Nor do they appear to understand the complexities or realpolitiks of this situation.
As court cases rumble on, those who instigated or drove Occupy are now being held to account. This has resulted in a number getting jail time. It is probable that the current activity is a reaction to that, as the pro-democracy camp lashes out.
In all seriousness, do you expect China, which has sought reunification as a matter of national pride, to give up Hong Kong? Beyond that, is the issue of straightforward municipal matters of water, power and food. Hong Kong is not sustainable as an entity without the largess of the Mainland. One gets the impression the advocates of independence are not in the top percentile of the IQ stakes.
Talking of which, we have the Pro-China groups on the other side. Easy to anger, with unrestrained slogans. They have responded in kind to the provocations. It is obvious, the independence banners and slogans are there to spark a reaction. The Union Flag gets deployed in a similar manner. If you want to get the blood up of the pro-China crowd, that is certain to work.
The locus of the current trouble is the university campuses. This brings into play other factors of significant bearing. Independence calls are being trumpeted as “freedom of speech.” A clever move that ignores deeper issues. In recent years, Hong Kong has seen an influx of accomplished Mainland students. These exceptional students outshine the Hong Kong kids, who now feel threatened. There is little or no mixing between the groups with segregation in dorms.
Local students resent the success of the Mainlanders. With better English skills, a serious work ethic, the Mainlanders leave their local counterparts behind. They sweep up grades and scholarships. As a provocation, this hurts most of all. Hong Kong kids and their parents are obsessed with grades. Getting your butt kicked by a Mainlander is not pleasant. Local students are hurting and marginalised. And, as they can’t compete in the academic arena, adopting other tactics appeals.
But let's not generalize. From what I’m told it is only a small group of Hong Kong students who are agitating. These mainly come from the lesser faculties of social sciences and such. In the hard-nosed science subjects, the kids are focused on their studies with an earnest attitude.
Meanwhile, university governing bodies have got themselves in a spin. As rationalists, they realise independence is a dead-end road. Yet, their liberal sentiments intrude. They can’t bring themselves to deal with this issue in a robust manner. If they saw a child playing with fire, would they hold off? Would they feel it's important to let the child experience the dangers at the risk of burning down the house? They’d intervene. Tough love is sometimes necessary.
Some of the current activity is aimed at garnering international attention. But, again, a fantasy creeps in here. For some reason, the pro-democrats think the rest of humanity cares deeply about Hong Kong. Our “15 minutes of fame” during the handover period played well on the international stage. The whole “moment in history” thing with military bands strutting about made great TV. Next day, the media was gone.
In 2003, SARS generated publicity for all the wrong reasons. It was soon forgotten, although at the time we felt like an abandoned people. Pariahs, ostracised from the world stage. The Occupy movement attained wide coverage as international reporters and TV crews hung round morbidly waiting for a repeat of Tiananmen. When that didn’t happen, they moved on. Occupy left behind a fragmented mess too complicated for them to explain.
So, in short, these days Hong Kong rarely features in the international news. Overseas politicians only take an interest to advance an agenda or garner publicity. The best example of this is Chris Patten, the last Governor. He can’t help himself. In the UK, a much diminished figure over his mishandling of the Jimmy Savile sex scandal at the BBC; the attention he gets in Hong Kong is flattering to his ego. Thus, Hong Kong is a welcome respite.
But I digress. People cling to the idea that international pressure will force Beijing to concessions. They run off to Washington or London to plead their case. Whilst these efforts may get a few column inches, it never sticks. Having said that, the majority of Americans couldn't find Hong Kong on a map. "Doesn't Jackie CHAN come from there? I love Jackie CHAN.” Meanwhile, the Brits are rather tied up with their European divorce predicament.
Step back. Consider the impact that international pressure has had on China’s dealings with North Korea. Minimal. Thus, Hong Kong’s rebel alliance of students and politicians are wasting their breath.
Pragmatism needs to prevail. Those seeking independence are misguided. If they had the best interests of Hong Kong at heart, they’d focus on working to advance this wonderful place.
The British monarchy is no longer a game of thrones. Rather, it’s a mundane game of consent. Interesting fact … countries that have Kings and Queens are empirically freer. They also have higher levels of social justice. That statement contradicts rationality. Yet, look at the freest countries. Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Spain, Luxembourg and Great Britain all top the league. All have high levels of freedom, social justice and a constitutional monarchy. Something is going on. The correlation is unclear - but it can't be a coincidence. I know folks on the left - in particular the regressive left - baulk at this idea. They reject the evidence.
You could argue, as some do, that the monarchy as an institution acts as the national glue. It brings together a people. That argument has some resonance. Of course, in the modern iteration, Kings and Queens are above the politics or should be. Although, the feckless Prince Charles is stretching that principle somewhat.
The monarchy can provide a focus for national pride, a vessel for sorrow at times of strife. That unifying force that transcends the sordid business of politicians. Queen Elizabeth II has played that role to perfection. Plus, the pageantry is wonderful. Even Johnny Rotten (aka John Lydon) of the Sex Pistols acclaims his admiration. But I have to ask, what is the appeal and the purpose of the whole show?
Walter Bagshot, writing in the late 1800s, encapsulated the issue. “The mystic reverence, the religious allegiance, which are essential to a true monarchy, are imaginative sentiments that no legislature can manufacture in any people. You might as well adopt a father as make a monarchy.” Thus, in his view, the monarchy remains beyond rational explanation.
As it stands at the moment, the leader of the winning party in an election travels to see a 91-year old woman. She then invites them to form a government. Convention dictates that she must invite. Further, the leader can’t form a government without having had that invite. All rather farcical.
Further, it is only through Elizabeth II’s signature that laws come into existence. But she only signs what her ministers ask her to. She can't act in a unilateral manner. Moreover, none of this is written down. Convention and practice prevail. This has progressed over time as Parliament asserted itself, with the Monarchy in gradual retreat. In that sense the monarchy evolves, it morphs with the times, adapting. Which is odd because the monarchy's role is continuity, that connection to the past.
Although the Queen has no direct political power, in theory, she remains able to exercise the royal prerogative. She could decline to sign a bill or order parliament to close. Of course, such a move would provoke unforeseen consequences. That could include the end of the monarchy. So her powers are held in check.
In the past, Kings and Queens fought for power, in the process they slaughtered their opponents. Jealously guarding a blood-line. These days soft power prevails. Real political clout surrendered for the right to be consulted. Yet, the motivation remains the same … protect that blood-line.
The PR machine that controls and contorts every image we see of Queen Elizabeth II and her family is a slick operation. It manages all opportunities to greatest impact, never missing a beat. In 2013, Prince Harry sat outside a tent in Afghanistan, giving an interview. Then by serendipity, the scramble alarm sounds. He sprints for his combat helicopter. It’s an image straight out of the Battle of Britain… another young man in a war zone fighting for freedom. The nation gasps in jingoistic delight. Strange we never see the helicopter lift off nor what carnage our prince wrought on the nasty enemy. But the impression lingers. “Harry the lad” is doing his bit. All good stuff you may conclude.
Survival depends on convincing the British public the monarchy is relevant. In this regard, the role of heredity, so scorned by the Republicans, has one distinct advantage. It settles once and for all the issue of who gets the job. There’s no political fighting, no contest. A smooth seamless transition assures stability at a time of potential crisis.
Having said that, a monarchy that exists by consent is fragile and not without inconsistencies. Great legal minds continue to debate the monarchs exact powers and reach of those powers. Nothing remains settled, it's all a muddle and compromise. For all that, Queen Elizabeth II has kept the ship balanced and on an even keel in some choppy seas.
In recent times the only real threat came in the shape of Saint Diana of Harrods. Diana took on the Royals in a PR battle that in bold moves canonized her in the public’s mind. In the process, Charles gets demonized, whilst the Queen Mother takes some flack.
The Windsor PR machine was on the back-foot. Fighting a rearguard action against a wronged woman. Organisations can be slow to change. But a dynasty that has survived hundreds of years wasn't nimble enough on this occasion. Hence, when Diana died in that Paris underpass, the Windsors failed to comprehend the new sentiment game. A paucity of solemn condolences drew swift and unrestrained public bile. The target was the Queen.
Her absence from London, sitting remote in her Scottish Castle, didn't play well. Whilst the nation mourned the public conjured up images of some dark Shakespearian episode. A ruthless Queen, hiding away, deaf to her nation despairing wails. Bit part players included a young ardent Prime Minister. In the shadows a sulking Prince skulked around, fearful for his own life.
The Windsors fell short because the front woman failed to read the mood of the nation. Folklore has it that only the intervention of the Prime Minister brought about a change in heart. Eventually, the Windsor PR machine fired up its engines. The Queen co-opted plans for her mothers funeral to roll out all the public-appeasing pageantry. It worked.
Some of the blame for this episode must rest with the inept Charles Windsor. A man sitting out the longest apprenticeship in history. He’s made some daft decisions that threatened to scuttle the whole enterprise. And for that reason, I suspect his Mum is holding off letting him have the top job.
Except for that one slip up, Queen Elizabeth II is beyond reproach. She’s kept a steady hand on the helm. She reigned through thirteen UK Prime Ministers and a hundred plus Commonwealth equivalents. Her insights are large. No one in history has had that breadth of exposure. Of course, we don’t know her personal opinions nor should we hear these. Sometimes discretion is a virtue.
Aside from the Diana saga, she has suffered occasional bad press. At times accused of being aloof and cold. I heard one anecdote that refutes this. A surgeon who’d served in a war zone invited to the Palace for lunch gets seated next to the Queen. The poor chap is suffering post-traumatic stress. He'd seen terrible things, including amputations on children. The pressure of the event got to him as he started to shake. The Queen immediately called her dogs over. She produced treats from her pocket for him to feed the dogs. She encouraged a dog to sit in his lap. Calm returned. These are not the actions of a heartless callous person, but someone who’d recognised a fellow human in distress.
I was also struck by the way she conducted herself in a visit to Ireland in 2011. This state visit topped the reconciliation process that began with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The next year in Northern Ireland she greeted a man who’d likely had a role in the assassination her uncle. Shaking hands with Martin McGuinness, she transformed the situation by normalising relations. That was a profound moment of rapprochement that signaled things had changed. A politician undertaking the same act could be a cynical gesture. She brought gravitas to the whole process by having no public agenda.
When King Farouk of Egypt was removed from his throne in 1952 he remarked that “soon there will be only five kings left”. The list consisted of the kings of spades, diamonds, hearts and clubs – and the King of England. Only time will tell.
The monarchy will be in a precarious position when Charles takes over. His wife does not enjoy wide support with the public. How this plays out is anyone's guess. Consent to sit on the throne is by no means certain. Fickle public sentiment could again swing against the House of Windsor.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.