Chatham House Rule: The way out for genuine policy deliberation

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This article was originally published in Chinese in AM730 on 8 November. In the spirit of self-reflection, we’re printing this translation at the behest of the author, even though the article is tangentially about our sister company, Harbour Times Forums (think The Economist and EIU, but far far smaller!).

I was invited earlier this month by Harbour Times Forums to attend a policy discussion meeting on financial issues. The meeting was conducted under Chatham House Rule, which was first initiated in the United Kingdom in 1927 to address controversial topics. According to the latest definition in 2002, the attendants are allowed to use the information received but with anonymity to encourage in-depth and free discussions.

Apart from those ‘political missions’, pushing through a livelihood topic typically requires garnering public support and balancing conflicting interests. Yet from a public relations perspective and in reality, our principal officials under the current administration are indeed poor in delivering political discourse within their ivory towers. Meanwhile, there is an abnormal phenomenon in Hong Kong that we have a whole lot of think tanks, but they just do not deliver in what should have been a division of labour in policy and public opinion research for the government.

Think tanks in the US, meanwhile, have the funding to actually conduct substantial research and discussions; and the fierce competition among them ensures high quality and efficient outcomes generated from those initiatives. I was lucky enough to visit several well-established think tanks in America during my studies there, and they of are worlds apart from those in Hong Kong.

Studying Economics in Hong Kong will hardly lead you anywhere as, unlike academics in the US where they are well funded and shielded by think tanks, most here share a much smaller platform and rely heavily on one or few funding sources which significantly constrains their academic autonomy. Worse still, many think tanks here are nothing more than a stepping stone to appeal to businessmen and climb up the political ladder. I don’t see how regular reports, forums, or press conferences initiated by these groups can truly address our citizens’ utmost concerns when they don’t even intend to do proper policy research for the government.

Take policy-making on financial issues for example. There are only a handful of relevant think tanks here in Hong Kong and policymakers are not known for being open to incorporating voices from industry. As a media outlet, Harbour Times will have to cooperate with think tanks to effectively bring the results of its Chatham-House-Rule-style discussions into the bureaucracy. Think tanks’ participation can also help pick those who have shown genuine concerns on the topics. I dare say – under Chatham House Rule – that certain attendants of the meeting did not read relevant documents before coming or were speaking more on ideologies than on technical issues.

Politics in Hong Kong is predominantly a game of thrones and vested interests and is occupied by the ‘hardcore’ matters like the Basic Law interpretation and independence/self-determination and so on. But there are also those less controversial that would need a more effective way of deliberation. I don’t know how popular the Chatham House Rule system can become, but it should definitely be promoted.


[starbox desc=”Stanley Wong

Stanley Wong, a member of the 90s generation is an executive director of a listed company. He is also a columnist writing on political and financial topics.