South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Giles Brennand argues that we should strengthen traditional Chinese society
The public consultation exercise on anti-discrimination legislation illustrates three fundamental errors in the Equal Opportunities Commission’s approach to its role.
First, the commission implies that rights can simply be created out of thin air. Everyone would like to enforce rights to be healthy, to live in a luxurious apartment, and to win an Olympic gold medal. But it is not going to happen. Rights are the results, not the cause, of responsibilities. If someone has accepted a responsibility, then, and only then, can someone claim against it to enforce the right created by that responsibility.
Hence the fundamental approach to the architecture of civic society should be the consideration of citizens’ responsibilities, not their rights.
Second, the commission assumes that the government should have the principal responsibility for the delivery of rights. But responsibilities are most effectively and economically discharged if they follow natural structures. In human society the most important structure is the family.
So it is much better for everyone if parents are primarily responsible for the upbringing of their children, rather than some distant government body. Setting responsibilities this way has consequences. For example, there needs to be adequate, affordable housing for three-generation families. So an important function for a body like the Equal Opportunities Commission is to build agreement on the responsibilities of family members towards each other and society as a whole in a modern Hong Kong, and then ensure that other government policies are aligned to enable and support the fulfilment of those responsibilities.
Similarly, extended families and neighbourhoods, not the government, should have the primary responsibility for creating opportunities – not guarantees – of productive employment, and for ensuring that citizens show appropriate respect and consideration for others.
Third, the commission is slavishly following Western trends. Yet Western society is generally acknowledged to be headed towards a perfect storm: alienated youth, discredited participation in politics, widening income and wealth disparities, falling productivity, disappearing jobs and the destruction of the environment.
The cause of this crisis can be traced back to the unconstrained autonomy increasingly granted to individuals in Western society since the Enlightenment, which led to the endless pursuit of personal wealth, and the relentless undermining of institutions that are the bedrock and essence of civil society: family, unions, schools, religions and minority cultures.
Hong Kong does not want to be a grey copy of the West. Harmony does not need to mean uniformity. The commission should be taking the lead in building, strengthening, and yes evolving, a traditional Chinese society to make it even better for the modern world. The commission should not wilfully destroy traditional Chinese values for no better reason than so that they can be replaced by Western attitudes that may not be appropriate for Hong Kong.
So grievous are these fundamental errors that one has to ask whether Hong Kong would be better off without an Equal Opportunities Commission as currently constituted. Perhaps Hong Kong should have a Citizenship Commission with a different, much broader, mandate to evolve traditional Chinese filial duties to make them even more appropriate for today’s modern society. Only in that context can there be intelligent discussions about anti-discrimination legislation.
Giles Brennand is an adjunct professor in the Department of Management at Chinese University of Hong Kong