Politicisation of Hong Kong society should be welcomed

Stephen Vines says civic participation signals a more mature community

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 November, 2013, 7:30pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 November, 2013, 8:10pm

The usual suspects are gathering to bewail the terrible politicisation of Hong Kong life. Unsurprisingly, they are quick to criticise the government's growing band of opponents for making everything political.

Tut, tut, they mutter, things have got so bad that even variety shows, radio and television stations have been drawn into the political furore. And then there's education, countryside issues and goodness knows what else.

People get involved in public policy because they care. Is this a bad thing?

It appears that the excitable critics of politicisation don't even know the meaning of the word.

Let's remember that politics simply relates to anything concerned with government and public policy and other aspects of civic life. For many decades, Hong Kong was saddled with the problem of too little participation in the political sphere, reflecting widespread civic apathy and a worrying detachment of the people from the political process.

This is no longer the case, and it is strange that growing community involvement should be castigated. Surely this is, at least in part, a reflection of the maturity of Hong Kong society. It also reflects the reality of a largely immigrant community being transformed into a more stable community with stronger roots in Hong Kong. People get involved in public policy because they care. Is this a bad thing?

What most of these critics really mean when they talk about politicisation is the kind of politicisation that they dislike. They would prefer Hong Kong's political engagement to be limited to passive acceptance of dictates from above. Even here, there is something new in the air: some pro-government forces that feel the need for greater activism are mobilising to protest against the protesters.

Meanwhile, we have a government that has become the recruiting sergeant for mass protests. It has done so in part through sheer ineptitude and by pushing policies that are obnoxious.

Thus, even supposedly non-political issues, such as television broadcast licences, have become a matter for mass protest. And protests are now being handled by the most highly political police chief in recent memory, who appears to start from the assumption that it is his job to minimise the effectiveness of protests and arranges policing that ends up turning peaceful rallies into rather agitated affairs.

Moreover, Hong Kong's chief executive is not merely content with pursuing unpopular policies and refusing to explain them; he cannot help but meddle in affairs, such as the disciplining of a school teacher caught on camera swearing at police officers.

When it comes to core issues, such as education and the attempt to impose a national education curriculum, small politics moves into the big league. The usual suspects start bleating when the intended recipients of this new curriculum - that is, the students - vigorously express their views on this matter.

Having had an opportunity to speak to students in the Scholarism movement, I have been highly impressed both by their intelligence and commitment to society. Rational people should applaud the presence of these young people in Hong Kong.

The woolly charge of politicisation will not disappear but sensible people will look upon this process as an opportunity to involve more people in the development of society. This also verges dangerously close to the idea of making Hong Kong more democratic and the very people who claim to love this place will, in the same breath, declare that its people are too immature to govern themselves.

The bottom line is a visceral distrust of the people. The lesson of history is that when the rulers of societies distrust their own people, these societies build failure into their structure.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur