(An edited version of this article was published in the South China Morning Post on 18 June 2004)
Ever since the Declaration on Hong Kong ’s Core Values was published on June 7, the enthusiastic public discussions have surprised even the signatories. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa should also be commended for an unusually swift response by arranging a meeting with some of the campaign’s initiators in less than a week.
While it is encouraging that Mr Tung and senior officials repeatedly reaffirm the government’s commitment to upholding Hong Kong ’s core values, two questions remain: are we talking about the same set of values? And, what next?
The fear in most people’s minds is that the core values treasured by the government are a set of pro-business values, which may leave out a lot of other values deemed essential by the community. While the importance of overseas investors looms large in the government’s media statements, core values such as social justice, fair play, equitable due process and democracy are noticeable by their absence.
The danger of pro-business values is not that it encourages unfair privileges to the business sector but that, by its very nature, only a select few businesses would be favoured. Under the guise of boosting the economy, a chosen few who could exert more influence on the administration would, in the absence of due process, benefit at the expense of all others.
Sadly, there were too many recent cases to illustrate that a distorted set of pro-business values would breed only money politics and cronyism. Public confidence in the integrity of the system has been undermined. What Hong Kong needs instead is a set of pro-market values which emphasises fair competition, transparent rules and equitable due process that allows all players to participate as equals. While this may sound too ideal to many, the first step is for us to recognise that we are going down the wrong path.
When asked in the recent meeting, Mr Tung specifically endorsed all the core values listed in the declaration, although he said he would like to add more, such as filial piety. This is, we hope, a sign that the administration is beginning to recognise that Hong Kong is more than just an economic city.
Many people queried why no solution was offered in the declaration. Although many of the 294 co-signatories hold various positions in their respective sectors, we do not purport to represent the community at large. Indeed, it would be wrong to suggest that we have more credible solutions than many others who are equally concerned about the state of affairs in Hong Kong .
We explained to Mr Tung that what is needed most is not goodwill gestures to reconcile with a minority of elites, but a broad-based, open and transparent public participatory process through which members of the community can voice their concerns and propose the way forward.
For Hong Kong to get going again we need not only to recommit to a common set of core values, but also to embark on a partnership between the government and civil society. As Mr Tung rightly pointed out: “ Hong Kong ’s core values can be maintained and realised only through the joint efforts of the government and the community at large.” It is essential that Mr Tung’s newly found confidence in the community be translated into an empowerment of the people. This entails a switch of the government’s role from an aloof controller to a facilitator of core values in all policymaking.
To paraphrase the words of America ’s third president, Thomas Jefferson: “The price of upholding our core values is eternal vigilance.” And civil society must be the source of that vigilance.
Albert Lai Kwong-Tak is one of the convenors of the Hong Kong Core Values Declaration