The Morals of Political Figures

(InMedia)  The Morals of Political Figures.  By Leung Man-tao (梁文道).  July 22, 2007.

[in translation]

I originally thought that the departure of RTHK Director of Broadcasting Chu Pui-hing was only a storm in a small teacup.  I did not imagine think that so many mainland media would pay attention to this matter.  They reported on the case and they published commentaries.  Their intention was obviously to highlight the freedom and developed stage of the media in Hong Kong, the power of the civic society in Hong Kong and the strict demands of the Hong Kong people about the morals of their officials.

Surely, if the same incident were to occur on the mainland, we could not see the media publishing independently (or even filming) a photograph of a senior officials walking hand-in-hand with a sex worker.  Even if it happened, we probably don't expect that "public opinion" will have any effect, because nobody will think that the affair is anything unusual.  Finally, an official would never resign over such a trivial matter, unless they were forced to do so by their superiors.  Therefore, the Chu Pui-hing scandal demonstrated the superiority of the Hong Kong system.

But then I thought about this carefully: Is something wrong with the moral requirements that Hong Kong people demand of their officials?  Some even more basic questions are, How should we demand public servants to meet moral standards? How high should they go? What can we do to take sure that public servants don't fail us morally?

In reviewing the debate over this matter, I discovered that many people agree with Chu Pui-hing's explanation that it is his "private life" if he wants to spend money to go out on his personal time after work and this is totally unrelated to "public business."  Therefore, Chu has no cause to provide any details to the public and the only person that he is accountable to on this matter is his wife.  But at the same time, many people felt that his voluntary departure was appropriate because his image had been damaged and "society should have a higher requirement on the moral standards of government officials than on ordinary citizens."

Why must officials be more moral than ordinary citizens?  This is a consensus that was derived from tradition, as if officials must be like saints -- they must be smarter, they must work harder and they must be able to resist the temptation of desires.  Therefore, their moral behavior must be irreproachable.  I think that anyone who pauses to think about this will know that this is an unreasonable demand.  From the viewpoint of power politics, if a political figure delivers excellent results and is a saint to boot, then his reputation and prestige will gain admiration.  But if he is an ordinary person who has common desires and emotions and he even occasionally transgresses, then should he be kicked out politics in spite of his political accomplishments?  We recall that even Confucius praised Guan Zhong (who had loose private morals) for doing a good job on behalf of the people.  So are we even more morally demanding than Confucius?

But this does not mean that politicians or public servants only need to behave just like ordinary people.  That is because they hold special positions that enjoy extraordinary powers and they have special relationships with the public.  Therefore, we should not demand abstractly that they have higher moral standards.  Instead, we should derive a special set of moral rules based upon their exact positions and powers.  We should not say that an official in a higher position must have higher moral standards.  We should say that because an official occupies a particular position with certain specific powers and bore a special power-responsibility relationship with the public, he should have the corresponding rules of ethics.  Simply put, a political figure should follow the corresponding rules of ethics.  If an official breaks those rules of ethics, then he has done wrong by his job position and also damaged the public interests.  This is what we should be watching for.

In the case of Chu Pui-hing, he did three things wrong: first, he patronized a place with sex workers; secondly, he lost his composure when he encountered the photographers; thirdly, he later used the RTHK public relations apparatus to declare that the girl next to him that night was just the girlfriend of a friend of his.

As he said, the first thing that he did wrong is a private matter and quite unrelated to the public or his position.  If we accept that sex work is regular work and sex trade is regular consumer behavior, then he did not make any mistake.

The second thing that he did wrong is a technical question about reacting in the public.  We can say that he did not handle the situation smartly or maturely, and it ruined his image of being steadfast.  But this had nothing to do with morals.

So far, the Hong Kong media and public seemed to have paid the most attention to the above two items.  The absurd pose of Chu Pui-hing in the photographs drew the scorn of citizens.  What happened between him and the woman was uncovered by the press in more and more detail and the general story is now known.  But everybody glossed over the third thing that he did wrong.

Based upon the preceding discussion of political ethics, it is this third mistake that is far more serious.  First of all, it was a lie because the "girlfriend of a friend" as characterized by Chu Pui-hing was actually a sex worker that he hired.  When a political figure tells such a lie to the public, it obviously makes people wonder if he might also lie about matters of public interest.  Next, even if we made the most tolerant attitude to say that the lie is unrelated to the public, it is still a very serious mistake because this lie was promulgated through a government department, namely the RTHK public relations apparatus.

In other words, Chu Pui-hing can consort with women or lose his composure, and it has nothing to do with his job position.  But his manner of response genuinely violated the professional ethics of public servants.  Since he used his job position and the government apparatus to tell a lie, he was abusing his power.

So why couldn't we focus on this lie instead of worrying about the details of his personal lifestyle?  Chu Pui-hing had a list of accomplishments over 30 years of public service, and people did not want to criticize this latest job action.  But there is also a broad social background.  We can use the two famous impeachment cases of American presidents as examples.  The first one was Richard Nixon and the second one was Bill Clinton.  In the Nixon case, the reasons for impeachment were that he covered up the secret wiretapping in the Watergate case and he also used CIA, FBI and other federal departments to retaliate against political enemies.  In the Clinton case, the reason for impeachment was his public lie about the sex scandal with Monica Lewinsky.

Anyone can see that Nixon's crimes were far more serious than those of Clinton.  Nixon had abused his powers to damage the American government system, but Clinton can only be said to have committed a mistake of "private morals" unrelated to the public interests.  How can the reason for impeaching the president become so vastly different after merely 20 years later?

First of all, beginning with the United States, the trend over the past 30 years has been for the social atmosphere to turn into moral conservatism.  The public is becoming increasingly interested in matters of morality.  Hong Kong is an obvious example, with sex-related issues becoming triggering points for social divisions.  More accurately, this is not about moral conservatism; this is about moral bigotry.  Although we are very concerned about whether public figures (including politicians) are patronizing prostitutes or conducting extramarital affairs, we never seem to care about whether they are caring, benevolent and fair-minded.  For certain groups that are fighting for moral regeneration, the sin of homosexuality of a politician is far more serious about his indifference towards disadvantaged groups.  A legislator can be a liar who votes opposite to his prior position, but he must not engage in extramarital sex, because his sex life seems to matter more to the public than anything else.  Could sex be the only issue in morality?

Next, the trivialization by the media and resulting "political spin" are also responsible to a certain degree.  The newspapers and magazines are increasingly enamored about trivia on political figures, such as telling us where they went on vacation or their children attends which schools or works at which companies.  At the same time, the political figures are increasingly eager to disclose their private lives in order to establish a solid personal image that is personable to the citizenry.  Together, they have shifted the public attention from the solemn political issues to the politicians themselves.  If the politicians today are losing privacy because the paparazzi are tailing them as if they were movie stars, then this is the trend which they created themselves.

In terms of the reality of Chinese politics, we have always been concerned about the moral conduct of our politicians.  Even today, the central government has issued orders to require officials to behave properly.  Yet, corruption stories about various levels of cadres abound.  One reason is that the moral requirements are too high and broad and are not based upon the actual powers held by the officials.  It is impractical to say that one must find a gentleman for every job.  More importantly, these moral requirements have not been translated into a concrete system and therefore they cannot be operationalized.  For example, we do not want to see officials spend vast amounts of money to build large, luxurious government buildings and other image projects.  But is it enough to tell them to stop wasting money?  Actually, this is less of a moral issue than a problem of deciding how to build a system to watch over the authorities.  Rather than speaking tall and loud about morality, we are better off working on a separation of powers to provide checks and balances.

Compared to the mainland, Hong Kong has the edge in its relatively free media.  But as far as the standards for morality among officials, both sides have a long way to go in terms of their thinking.  The more vacuous our requirements about the conduct of our officials are, the longer the path that we will have to traverse.