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Friday, Oct. 19, 2007

Timely apology calms an Asian storm


LOS ANGELES — Donald Tsang, the executive leader of Hong Kong, recently apologized to his good citizens for something he said he didn't really mean. But the people of Hong Kong said they thought they heard it right the first time: that he believed the territory's rapid democratization, which many people say they want, could produce chaos.

Tsang replied, in effect: I didn't mean to misspeak, but if I made you angry I am truly sorry.

Such an apology was not unusual in Asia. This is a part of the world where prominent political figures seem to be apologizing almost every other month. This is to distinguish Asia from America, where almost no one ever admits a mistake and where many who are clearly in error remain firmly in denial.

Thus, an apology is not deemed to be the end of the world — or indeed of a political figure's career — but rather an act of true contrition that solidifies the culture. Here in the States, it's considered such a big deal that no typical politician in his right calculating mind would even consider apologizing.

President Richard Nixon, under fire for lying and other sinning, resigned from the presidency in 1973 but didn't apologize. Some Americans are still waiting for Bill Clinton to formally apologize for lying about the Monica affair. America will probably have to wait until Iraq is an Islamic state for President George W. Bush to apologize for the Iraq war.

In Asia, people don't wait long — and sometimes not at all. Early on in his administration, South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun not only apologized for his stuttering performance but proposed — without hardly any prompting — to organize a public referendum on whether his remaining in office was in the national interest. He had just recently been elected!

In Taiwan, the self-governing offshore island next to China, President Chen Shui-bian has apologized so much that it almost got embarrassing, at least by Western standards!

In Hong Kong, Tsang's offense was to suggest that his place needs to slow down its push toward full democracy because things could get out of hand. Pressure from his constituents for full voting rights (never granted by the British during 156 years of occupation, I should mention) mounts by the month.

In a recent radio interview, Tsang, now in his second term as the territory's top dog, suggested that a recklessly accelerated rush to democracy could create the kind of instability experienced by mainland China during the truly awful Cultural Revolution.

If that's what Tsang meant, his suggestion certainly hit home, but in the wrong way. Hong Kong, with 7 million or so citizens, is nothing like the mainland, with its 1.3-plus billion people. What's more, Hong Kong is already a nicely rowdy place. It is an Asian Manhattan — vertical, overpopulated, brassy, mesmerizing — a place that teems with life and tumult. It's everything you could reasonably want from a modern metropolis. I do love the place.

So does — among many others — Anson Chan, the long-revered civil servant who recently threw her hat in a race for a seat in the legislature there. Many, though not all, Hong Kongers adore Chan as a kind of cultured "Iron Lady" pearl that some day probably should be running the place.

Given the chance to stomp all over Chief Executive Tsang, Anson took the high road, characteristically. She accepted his apology but then suggested that Tsang is going to become some kind of sitting duck if he tries to throw apocalyptic horror-show fears in the way of the people's desire for democracy.

In fact, true democracy, when it's arrived at through a steady process, can be profoundly stabilizing, rather than the opposite. Giving people the right to dissent and the right to vote and the right to change their mind provides a built-in steam-remover. Rather than revolt by heading to the streets and looking for trouble, people speak their mind, petition for change and vote leaders in or out of office. It can have a tension-relieving effect.

I'm sorry to say that democracy isn't for everyone in all situations at all times in every nation's evolution. Still, it is a system that, when working well, is quite something to behold.

Hong Kong is headed in that direction and should arrive at something like Democracy Station before too long. There is no other way it can work — if it's all to remain peaceful. And about that, no one in Hong Kong need make any apology at all.

Tom Plate, an adjunct professor of communications and policy studies at UCLA, is a board member of the Burkle Center on International Relations and founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network. Copyright 2007 Tom Plate


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