Incivility reigns in Hong Kong’s civil society

Kerry Kennedy says though all groups are guilty, those who play the role

of government critic should especially bear in mind the need to uphold justice and practise tolerance

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 November, 2015, 1:20pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 November, 2015, 1:20pm

The great benefit of civil society is that it offers a voice that can often counter the excesses by governments. Yet, when civil society itself becomes uncivil, its potential to impact on those excesses is reduced and an important tool is lost to maintain a just and fair society. Hong Kong has reached this point.

The incivility shown by many lawmakers towards institutions such as the Legislative Council is a good example of how the potential of civil society is being wasted. It displays a selfishness that, in the end, undermines the influence of the institution and people’s trust in it. Throwing objects at speakers, rushing to the front to assail convenors and standing on seats to shout threats to all and sundry do nothing to advance the cause of democracy. Such actions send exactly the wrong message both to the community and the central government, reinforcing stereotypes of democratic behaviour.

The recent invasion of the University of Hong Kong council meeting by students is in the same vein. One can be sympathetic to the students’ cause for greater transparency in the decision-making processes of a publicly funded institution, but engaging in such behaviour only plays into the hands of those who benefit from such a lack of transparency. With some political acumen, a council meeting agenda can be interrogated from within the meeting by concerned council members. Politics is an art, a point neither students nor their older pan-democratic mentors seem to appreciate.

READ MORE: Full coverage of the HKU appointment controversy

Of course, the uncivil behaviour of legislators and students from Hong Kong’s most elite university does not exist as isolated incidents. The gloves are off for all groups: localists and nativists think it’s alright to harass mainland tourists, the Liberal Party thinks nothing of organising an alliance against refugees and some church leaders openly promote hate towards sexual minorities. These are all uncivil actions that seem to be increasingly tolerated as incivility dictates public discourse in Hong Kong.

Of course, it can be argued that civil society is pushed towards these extremes by a truculent and unresponsive government. This certainly is how some people feel. What this reminds us is that civil society has two faces and, while one face may be pro-democratic, the other most certainly is not. Whether it is the media, politicians or civic groups, there are equal numbers of pro-democratic and pro-establishment forces. Thus, for every action of one camp, there will be an equal and opposite reaction from the other.

This means that the democratic narrative around any issue will always be challenged, as in the case of the decision not to appoint Professor Joannes Chan Man-mun to an administrative position at HKU. The only question that needed to be asked in that case was did Chan meet the selection criteria for the position? Rather, the issue has been politicised by both the pro-democrats and the pro-establishment camp, to the point where the real question has been lost and incivility reigns on both sides. As a result, the university has suffered, the candidate has suffered and the community has suffered.

It is, of course, frustrating to be ever the critic, and ever the monitor of good governance. Yet this is the role of civil society. While it is tempting to want to push agendas hard and achieve quick gains, if the result is incivility, intolerance and injustice towards others, then the hard push is not worth it.

This applies to all groups in civil society – not just the pro-democrats. Getting one’s own way at the expense of social cohesion and inclusion is not a victory at all. People live in society because there are benefits in being and working together. Aggrandisement by one group at the expense of another breaks this social contract. Disagreements should never be allowed to outweigh the core of common values that unite all Hong Kong people. It seems at the moment there is no champion for what brings people together – just uncivil behaviour that drives people further apart. Hard work is needed to recover a sense of community that can help the city recover both its civility and dignity.

Professor Kerry Kennedy is director of the Centre for Governance and Citizenship at the Hong Kong Institute of Education