No place in July 1 march for a numbers game

Alice Wu says our obsession with turnout numbers at the July 1 rally misses the point of civic participation - a good in itself

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 July, 2013, 1:35am

Let's face it: Hong Kong is a highly strung society. We work crazy hours and are constantly stressed out. Sure, competition, efficiency and productivity are good qualities to have. But while Hong Kong's characteristic way of rushing through life has somehow become an integral part of our identity, living life in a pressure-cooker takes its toll.

Health-wise, our hyper-stressed lives are leading to more insomnia, high blood pressure and a host of complicated mental health and psychosomatic disorders.

Fortunately, we are increasingly aware of our frantic lifestyle. In addition to recognising the sources of our stress - like long working hours, job security, the rich-poor gap and the high cost of living - we have learned to pause and rethink our priorities.

And what we've learned in our private lives we can also apply to our public life.

Since we were awakened from our political apathy - most notably by the July 1 march of 2003 - we've been more politically involved as a community. The idea of a more publicly engaged society should be a good thing - at the very least, it nurtures a public spirit that complements a political system moving towards democratisation.

So why do we seem more politically agitated and stressed out? Our strengthened public spirit ethos has brought people together but it has also polarised society.

It is true that this city's administrators have disappointed and, at times, infuriated the community. But we must also look at how other political actors have contributed to creating a stress-inducing, exasperating political landscape.

Today, a week after July 1, is a good time to pause and think. What has the annual July 1 march - a tradition I believe to be a healthy way for members of the community to let off steam, air their grievances and, most importantly, be heard - become?

It has somehow become a numbers game, which robs the march of its purpose and meaning. The growing discrepancy between the turnout figures from organisers, the police's and academics should be ringing alarm bells, because when the focus is placed solely on numbers, or the manipulation of counting heads, instead of the marchers' voices, something has gone terribly askew.

When we draw an arbitrary line, which, in effect, says that only "X" number of feet can legitimise sentiments, grievances or demands, we do ourselves a disservice. As a result, we lose, bit by bit, our power and right to be heard.

Chasing numbers is not what the July 1 march is about. Just as we have begun to come to terms with the fact that happiness does not necessarily derive from material riches, we must now pause and think about this city's politics.

No counting exercise can determine the quality of our public spirit. And when we lose sight of what is truly important - a public sphere that allows for different voices to be heard and different opinions to be aired, so that people can be empowered by the process - we're heading down a dangerous path of political disillusionment and collective cynicism.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA