You can't pull the political wool over Hongkongers' eyes

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 June, 2012, 12:00am


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One great idea for losing money is to bet on the stupidity of the Hong Kong people. Every time frustration over government stupidity provokes despair, it can be dispelled by knowing that the people have an astounding collective record for being right on the big issues.

Further evidence for this claim was supplied in an opinion poll commissioned by the South China Morning Post this week. It produced the seemingly contradictory finding that a substantial majority of those questioned were opposed or neutral to chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying's plan for restructuring the government, while nearly half were against legislators' tactics for opposing the plan.

At first glance, this does seem odd, but not if you understand that people are more concerned about outcomes than process. The filibustering in the legislature that annoys many people is, after all, nothing more than a tactic, whereas changing the way the government is run without presenting a proper case for reform is a substantial matter that leaves a sense of unease.

Hongkongers are distinctly unimpressed by politicians and very sceptical over political posturing. Thus, what is seen as time wasting or 'political show' goes down very badly indeed. It may be unfair to criticise legislators who have nothing but blocking powers, but that is the game as it stands and it really requires those playing it to play more shrewdly.

As for the government, a number of surveys have shown its credibility has shrunk. Indeed, even the traditional wave of goodwill towards an incoming chief executive has been tempered by the experience of the past two incumbents and understandable doubts about Leung.

Were it necessary to rely on poll data alone to make a case for the astuteness of Hongkongers, the argument would be incomplete. But compelling evidence is to be found in many other ways.

During most of the colonial period, locals had little contact with officials or expectations of help from the government, so a range of self-help organisations was established. Moreover, most people understood that, to get ahead, they had to rely on themselves and their families. As long as officials did not block these aspirations, the people accepted a lot of poverty and injustice because they had a realistic expectation that obstacles could be overcome by personal effort.

There is far less optimism these days, as it appears the path to progress is blocked by a clique of politically connected tycoons, aided and abetted by the government. This can only be overcome by participation in political activity, in other words, by taking collective action beyond the family.

Sometimes the extent of political participation in Hong Kong is not really appreciated. The Hong Kong Transition Project, which started in 1989, tracks this issue in its broadest sense and has consistently found very high levels of political participation not just in the massive political rallies, but also by way of donations to political causes, signing petitions and activity in neighbourhood groups.

Yet this level of political activity is in sharp contrast to the relatively low level of participation in political parties and elections. This is partly explained by a traditional suspicion of party politics emanating from China's modern history, which saw parties tearing the nation apart. Moreover, everyone knows their vote will have little impact in a rigged system that reserves real power for a tiny elite.

And, away from the world of politics, you can see savvy people organising their savings in a variety of creative ways that most in the allegedly developed world would not contemplate - ask the average American how many foreign currency accounts they hold and you will get an idea of what I mean. And it is clear through the, sometimes obsessive, focus of parents on education that most people realise this is the key factor influencing their child's prospects.

Given this evidence of shrewdness, it is clearly just as well that Hongkongers are considered too 'immature' to be trusted with the selection of their government and why, even at local level, they can only 'elect' representatives with puny powers compared with those of the bureaucracy. Go figure.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur