How the Hong Kong elite’s focus on economic gain has led to social and political turmoil
Andrew Sheng says society is like a three-legged stool, and the divided city is suffering the consequences of a devotion by those in power to maximising profit in the short term
Hong Kong’s latest legislative election results suggest that the city’s elite still do not quite get it. For over a century, Hong Kong has been largely an economic city, where politics was kept under colonial wraps and social development was left largely to the community as long as it did not conflict with the colonial agenda.
A very wise and perceptive friend reminded me that society is like a stool founded on three legs, where one unstable leg would tip the stool over. The three legs are economic, political and social. Economics is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition; without growth and development, there are no resources to deal with providing good social services, such as education, health and security, including dealing with poverty and social inequities.
The second leg is political, which in any society is a continuous bargaining process between different components to arrive at how to share and allocate resources, deal with what is important in society and maintain balance and fairness. Political bargains are always trade-offs, involving complex compromises because there are only so many resources to go around. Notice that the idea of one person, one vote democracy is only one option on the political scale. Hong Kong is a classic example where its citizens have almost every freedom except the last hurdle.
So why is Hong Kong politics a forum with few compromises? One possible answer is that Hong Kong is struggling with the third leg of post-colonial debate on social identity. Each citizen, especially the young, is trying to clarify which individual and social values such as religion, family, culture or what is considered sacred are part of the social contract. Social contracts are either constitutional, written in law such as the US constitution, or unwritten, like the British one. Hong Kong has its own constitution, the Basic Law, but being a special administrative region, it is subordinate to the Chinese constitution. Social compacts are by their very nature fluid and ambiguous, because it is an understanding of what an individual expects from the community, while the state also has expectations of the individual.
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Hong Kong’s elite, who benefited most from the expansion of the economic cake, have always pushed for the status quo and more economic freedoms, without paying serious attention to the other two legs. Hong Kong’s messy political consequences are due largely to insufficient attention to these two issues by its own elite.
Modern economic theory is much better at arriving at models or policies that can maximise output, such as GDP. Hong Kong could not have arrived at advanced income status without almost full devotion to profit maximisation in the short term at the cost of long-term political and social sustainability.
While it can be understood why the colonial period focused on maximising economics and finance with minimal questioning of British political rule, the ongoing debate is over the political and social costs, as revealed by the Legislative Council election results. The British colonial authorities were very clever in giving Hong Kong people almost all freedoms except the right to change their political masters. So why didn’t people seek independence from Britain? Today, some localists are seeking autonomy to determine their own future.
Hong Kong is learning local politics fairly quickly, as the young are experimenting with street protests and seeking electoral representation. To them, being a civil servant is no longer a path to the top position, because unless the candidate understands both local and mainland politics, the job is almost untenable, because understanding only one is insufficient.
Furthermore, understanding the form and process of politics is not enough. As was revealed in the Brexit referendum, when the population is asked about one issue, the electorate is actually responding to other issues. Often, referendum results end up with a protest vote that is not specific to one issue.
Also being unveiled over time is what is sacred to Hong Kong values. How do the values of rule of law collide with the rules of community, such as what is happening with land rights in the New Territories where elders and secret societies play a major role?
A one-party or multiparty system is a proxy system whereby individuals vote for a party to solve many of these issues of property rights or social disputes that exist in all societies. The rule of law is largely a rule of courts and the legislature. But there is no rule or law that covers all situations and so, when social and political conditions change, many issues need to be solved at the political and social levels.
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The problem with the Hong Kong elite is that they seem to know what they don’t want, but not what Hong Kong citizens really want. That is a search and learn process that changes over time. It would not be surprising if a fully democratically elected chief executive would very quickly find his or her popularity declining as fast as an appointed chief executive. That wouldn’t solve any problems – except that Hong Kong citizens had been able to exercise their right to elect a non-performer.
Some people think that taking regular polls is a scientific way of finding out what the man in the street really wants. But experience shows that not only are pollsters wrong, but also that the public mood can be fickle and changing. Even able civil servants, vaunted academics and a transparent media have not been able to put in the institutional processes to elicit social understanding and compromise in a transparent manner.
All societies arrive at the social contract through more informal channels of social dialogue before the creation of formal institutions. Can Hong Kong develop its own form of social conversation rather than adversarial politics where every issue becomes a grandstand for moral correctness?
Leadership is not about grandstanding for electioneering – it is about beginning the process of social conversation for mutual understanding and long-term stability.
Andrew Sheng comments on global issues from an Asian perspective