Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

How Hong Kong got to where it is

  • “A Study of History”, by Arnold Toynbee, may offer some ideas about our predicament and a guide to the future

If one were to write a history of the radical unrest of 2019 that has rocked Hong Kong to the core, how might one go about it beyond the usual “yellow” and “blue” narratives, or the democracy vs foreign interference debate?

With nothing better to do during the pandemic lockdowns, I have been immersing myself in the historical writings of Arnold Toynbee. Now I feel comfortable enough to borrow some of his conceptual schemes. This is no more than an intellectual game. I am, of course, no historian, so please don’t take this outline of an idea too seriously. But if it piques your curiosity in Toynbee and his ideas about the general contours of societal breakdown, it would have been worth my while. Some people find enlightenment reading Carl Jung and The I Ching. I find Toynbee revelatory.

Among his key ideas I will borrow are “dominant minorities”, “internal proletariats” and one of the three nemeses of creativity that he calls “idolisation of an ephemeral (non-lasting) institution”. The first two concepts are found in A Study of History (Volume 5), under the heading “The Disintegrations of Civilisations”, and the third and last concept in Volume 4, under “The Breakdowns of Civilisations”. Here, Toynbee is playing the forensic pathologist examining the corpses of late civilisations or groups of societies to determine their common causes of death.

To connect Toynbee to our city, let me first pose this pair of related questions at the outset about post-handover Hong Kong: why were the mass protests in 2003 peaceful and successful in achieving their objective: shelving the planned legislation of the security law under Article 23 of the Basic Law? Why were the protests in 2019 so often violent and failed in all their objectives but one – shelving the cross-border extradition bill?

To cut a long story short, if the dominant minorities enjoy political legitimacy, and if those who protest have specific demands – as opposed to general discontent and malaise – and have a big stake invested in the well-being and future of their community, then their protests should be, comparatively, peaceful; but if not, they tend to be violent.

But how did dominant minorities emerge in the first place? Through an act of political creativity, according to Toynbee, that is, they win the acquiescence and obedience of the masses by creating a vibrant and growing economy and society. Over time, though, they lose their legitimacy when they lose their creativity and degenerate into a plutocracy. Instead of pursuing general public interests, they pursue their own narrow interests in the name of the public good.

A plutocracy creates its own internal proletariats, those who are in the society but not of it, or the disenfranchised. They are made to feel they have no stake in the society by being pauperised and denied their fair shares of economic opportunities, social participation and political recognition. They are ignored and/or exploited. The dominant minorities physically see them but don’t morally recognise or acknowledge them. The late Leo Goodstadt provides a good empirical study of how this new poor class – or new kind of poverty – was created after 1997 in Poverty in the Midst of Affluence: How Hong Kong Mismanaged its Prosperity.

The political system that was previously constructed through an act of creativity by a governing minority loses its vitality and efficiency, thus eroding legitimacy. But the dominant minorities, through self-interest, myopia and blindness, continue with their idolisation of an ephemeral institution. In response, through an ideology such as a religion, the internal proletariats can be mobilised for resistance, which may possibly be peaceful, but more likely violent. It’s much easier to tear up something you have – or feel you have – no stake in than something in which you are heavily invested.

I think you know where I am going with all this with respect to post-1997 Hong Kong. Between the 1960s and 1980s, by departing from the socialist Labour Party ideology and adopting free market and free-trade principles for the city’s economic development, the British colonial masters were a unique dominant minority who helped create a vibrant local economy. And through a mixture of luck, design and cooperation from communist China, postcolonial Hong Kong was spared the disasters of British decolonisation such as those experienced on the Indian subcontinent and across the Middle East.

The colonial system was adopted almost wholesale by the post-handover government and accepted by the central government under “one country, two systems”. For a while, both the post-1997 government and the political system were accepted by the masses and enjoyed a degree of legitimacy. Over time, though, the plutocratic “property hegemons” and the elite civil servants/governors relied too much on the exploitative and extractive aspects of the political system; the status quo worked for them, but not many others.

Moreover, the system also failed to meet the “colonial-style” ruling functions demanded by the central government and, on the other hand, the democratic reforms demanded by the people. Indeed, it is constitutionally designed to be ill-suited to reform and change under the Basic Law’s guarantee of 50 years of no change, in a century marked by extraordinarily rapid changes at all levels of social existence.

To use a torture-execution metaphor, the system fails as it is being pulled in different directions – the political equivalent of being quartered alive. Meanwhile, a whole generation of proletariat of young people has come of age since the 1997 handover. They and their families were pauperised, despite the supposedly growing economic pie.

Culturally orphaned (neither British, Western nor Chinese) and politically disenfranchised, they have no memory of colonial rule but its idealised form, no experience of Western-style democracy beyond advertising slogans, and no understanding of mainland China beyond demonisation and caricature.

Crucially, lack of social mobility and economic opportunity, widening social and income gaps, and economic inequalities mean many feel they have no real stake in the current society. Society has rejected them and so, they must reject it. In its place, they demand an idolised or fantasised version of society that is either unrealistically “democratic” and/or free from Chinese control, whether real or imaginary, in some form of full autonomy or independence.

In 2019, those who still had a stake in the existing social and political arrangements made demands through peaceful resistance. Some of those who felt they had no real stake in existing society were more inclined to go on a rampage.

Were the protests in 2019 peaceful or violent? Well, they were both – unavoidably.