Even today, overseas political discourse is still dominated by the conventional political division of left and right. This is despite the fall of Soviet communism and the adoption, by varying degrees, of capitalist and free-trade principles in the running of economies in China, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba, and, to an extent, even North Korea. Many political writers have complained about the straitjacket labelling of the traditional left-right political divide. Interestingly, that never makes much sense in Hong Kong. Before the handover, someone was a leftist if their political loyalty was to communist China or a card-carrying member of the underground Chinese Communist Party . But after 1997, that no longer makes much sense when everyone who wants to be in the good grace of Beijing has to profess a love of the country, and that includes the local business community who supposedly are all free-market practitioners. Instead, in the past two decades, Hong Kong people tend to distinguish between the pan-democratic opposition and the pro-China/government camp. Lately, we may add radical localism, which Beijing equates to separatism. But such distinctions are even more superficial than the almost universal left vs right labels. They may say something about how advocates of one or the other wants the Hong Kong government to be formed or selected, but it doesn’t say what the ultimate goal or purpose of government is. Into such endless debate and distinction, Brian Lee Crowley, one of Canada’s most influential public intellectuals, offers what he claims is a more fundamental conception. He thinks people who are engaged in the political arena are either “gardeners” or “designers”. That cuts right into not only the art of government, but also its methods and ultimate purpose. He means the distinction to be a practical political philosophy. Who are the designers or social engineers? “There are people who conceive of society as a machine,” he writes in his new book, Gardeners vs Designers – Understanding the Great Fault Line in Canadian Politics . “A machine is invented by human beings following a carefully engineered plan. Every part has a purpose and a function that can only be understood and made to work by the folks who designed it in accordance with highly specialised expert knowledge. “And like almost any machine, it can be made to do pretty much what you want. If you want it to speed up, you pull this lever; if you want it to use less fuel, you twiddle that dial. And if the machine gets old and clapped out you can replace it with a ‘new and improved’ model. “In this view of politics, the key players are the engineers, the designers, the experts, who understand machines. When our social machine disappoints, they can always come up with something better, and in the meantime they can fiddle endlessly with the current model to get it to do what they think is best.” Needless to say, he doesn’t like designers. Here’s how he defines gardeners. Many if not most pan-democrats are, in fact, designers, in that their first instinct, when something goes wrong, is to criticise the government for failing to do this or that, or not doing enough “The key characteristic of a garden, as any real gardener will tell you, is that no one is in charge,” he writes. “A garden is a cooperative effort among many different factors, like climate, predators, soil, nutrients and, of course, the efforts of gardeners. But unlike a machine, whose purpose was imagined by its designers and which is a servant of their will, gardens are made up of many disparate plants, each of which has its own energy, intelligence and will. “Gardeners can help to create the conditions in which a garden flourishes but they cannot overmaster natural processes and they succeed best when they accept that each plant knows what conditions help to elicit its best self and no amount of gardening ‘expertise’ can shove nature aside. Gardeners can and do profoundly influence their garden, but they are the servants, not the boss, of what goes on there.” I don’t think Crowley’s distinction is particularly original, nor does he claim novelty. It is at least as old as Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution. But Crowley’s is a convenient way to conceptualise politics and government today. In Hong Kong, if we apply his distinction, many if not most pan-democrats are, in fact, designers, in that their first instinct, when something goes wrong, is to criticise the government for failing to do this or that, or not doing enough. They still think government is the solution, just not this government. Most progressives in the West think this way; that’s why they are often the fiercest government critics. When disruption is ‘subversion’, what’s left for Hong Kong’s opposition? However, you may argue that most local businesspeople and civil servants – at least those trained under the British colonialists who subscribed to free-market and free-trade principles – are like gardeners in that they prefer a hands-off government that accepts and promotes existing arrangements, rather than seeking their overhaul. Of course, that may just be a fake ideology when many of them, like their American corporate counterparts, only prefer capitalist competition for everyone else but corporate welfarism/socialism – subsidies and bailouts – from the government, for themselves. Arguably, the day-to-day freedoms of Hong Kong people depend a lot more on a “big” or “small” government – one that interferes a lot in society or does not – than one based on Western-style democracy or not. Using different labels and concepts to think about politics is always useful as a mental exercise, like breathing fresh air.