Time to dig Hong Kong out of the pit of political polarisation

Alice Wu says the current polarisation shows that all those involved have forgotten that politics is about the art of compromise

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 August, 2014, 4:08am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 August, 2014, 4:08am

When Dr Robert Chung Ting-yiu, director of the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme, released the latest results of its regular survey on public perception of our social indicators, there was little surprise at the drop in numbers across the board. After all, we haven't been having the best of months.

Chung left open the question of who is responsible. But our politicians were quick to blame political polarisation, seemingly unaware that they themselves contributed to that very polarisation.

But let's take things one step further. Instead of looking for heads to hang for our apparent collective depression: let's reflect on why we've arrived at this state of despair.

Our political debates appear to have taken a course of their own. They are framed in a binary language that makes clear "either you're with us or against us". That perhaps played a role in setting us up for a downward psychological spiral. When people are forced to take sides, it leaves a lot of room for insecurity and anxiety.

But we must also, at the very least, examine whether we're also complicit in this state of affairs.

If we look back at the way the electoral reform conversation has been shaped so far, we've been called to act - respond, pick a side, take a stand, sign a petition - more so than we've been asked to think. We've been reduced to numbers in a continuous numbers games, which must have contributed greatly in making people feel socially and politically displaced.

The small voices of the calm and the moderate - those who don't see the issue as non-negotiable and are willing to compromise to reach a breakthrough - have been drowned out by the loud and the confrontational throughout the process.

The question, then, becomes whether an environment of collective depression is necessary in order for the calls to find common ground to be heard. In other words, must we go through that much political trauma and internal strife, at so great a social cost that, in Chung's words, "public sentiment is at risk", just to arrive at the simple recognition that, fundamentally, politics is about the art of compromise?

We all know this, of course. We know that compromise is necessary, and that its rejection favours the status quo. Yet, knowing that, why do we allow ideologues from both sides to divide us, to close the berth for the middle, to exhaust us by riding us on their crests of public outrage, and then to drop us into the political abyss?

The way our politics works must change. As we're on the path to change it, Beijing must take note, especially of its role, also, in all of this gloom and doom - in pitting one against another, in making dialogue difficult, and in making the extremities of the political spectrum so very marketable.

Most importantly, though, it must take special care, because right now, as the National People's Congress Standing Committee prepares to meet on the issue of Hong Kong's political reform, the ball is in its court.

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