My education in mainland morals

It’s been drilled into public consciousness in mainland that when you see an old person fall to the ground on the street, don’t give her a hand, as the accident may be a ruse: the moment you make physical contact with her to help her get up, she may accuse you of having tripped her, bring her complaint to court and extract compensation out of you.

Such paranoia is not without grounds, for this avenue for the elderly to make money seems to have received official sanction: over the years, there have been several high-profile cases where Good Samaritans were asked by the courts to pay damages to plaintiffs they had tried to help. 

When I was living in mainland, I used to be puzzled by these rulings. Surely, for the sake of social good, courts, as proclaimers of public morality, should do its utmost to promote altruism? Why fuel fears that it’s detrimental to one’s self-interest to assist strangers?

Your logic isn’t mainland logic, my mainland friends admonished me. The CCP controls the judges, so these edicts can be read as an extension of the party’s longtime tactic of sowing the seeds of discord among its subjects; the deeper mutual distrust takes hold, the less likely the Chinese will unite and rebel against the regime. Yet another motive: public-spirted citizens – God forbid if their numbers become large enough to emerge as a class –  would threaten the CCP by making its amoral nature more pronounced; as long as there’s a point of comparison, the Chinese may soon see that the party isn’t the benevolent provider it claims to be.

Thanks to my prior exposure to CCP’s fixation on toppling the moral compass of its people so to minimize the chances of it being toppled, I’m less taken back than most Hong Kong people when I see the Hong Kong authorities displaying a distinct liking for going after those who do good: prosecuting social workers for helping demonstrators at last year’s protests; 
penalizing health workers who tried to pressure the government into keeping virus-carriers out of Hong Kong’s borders by staging a strike earlier this year; 
and, most recently, freezing the bank accounts of the Good Neighbour North District Church on the purported grounds that it functions as a money-laundering operation, thereby leaving its founder stranded in England with his family with no funds and halting its ongoing program to minister to the homeless.

By hounding those who put “love your neighbour as yourself” into practice, the CCP hopes to extinguish Hong Kong people’s civic-mindedness. This new code of conduct, however, would have been wanting had it not also pinpointed the kind of behaviour that would receive positive reinforcement from Beijing. Think of the time when the husband of the Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng found his construction firm under investigation for anti-monopoly practices shortly after Cheng hid in England and reportedly expressed the desire to resign. When the news about her husband’s troubles broke, though, Cheng promptly returned to Hong Kong to do her duty of prosecuting those who had run afoul of Beijing. Behind the stick comes the carrot: eight months after Cheng abandoned her escape plan, her husband’s firm won a $4.5 billion contract from the Water Supplies Department. 

Based on what we now know about Beijing’s designs on Cheng, the scandal that besieged her when she first assumed office suddenly acquires a sinister meaning: back then, an informer rained on her parade by supplying to the press detailed photos of the illegal structures that had been built at her residence. Perhaps it was Bejing that was behind the leak: in preemptively diminishing Cheng’s standing, Beijing was psychologically preparing Cheng for the dirty work that awaited her; without a good name to preserve, she should have no qualms about tackling tasks that the reasonable man would find repugnant.

Financier Jeffrey Epstein once boasted that his infamy as a child sex offender actually won him more powerful friends, because everyone has secrets, and the great and the good became more eager to confide in him, secure in the knowledge that compared to his secrets, theirs weren’t so bad after all. The CCP system works along similar lines: set up a few precedents of immoral people reaping gains and getting off scot free, and many will be tempted to quell their conscience and join the game. It follows that when Chief Executive Carrie Lam labelled those who protested against the extradition law as “hav(ing)  no stake in society,” 
what she really meant was: “people like Cheng and myself have already thrown our lot with the CCP and are doing really well. Why are you so unrelenting in not jumping over to our side?”

I'm Michelle Ng (吳若琦), an Oxford-educated bilingual political writer and English writing coach based in Hong Kong. I'm currently an English columnist for Apple Daily and Ming Pao, and a Chinese columnist for 眾新聞. I have written for Hong Kong Free Press, The Wall Street Journal and The Vancouver Sun. 

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