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

You say decline, I say change for the better

  • Those who are in charge of the new regime will always say their system is superior; those of the old regime, if they survive, will defame and denigrate the new regime. Only time will tell who’s right

Several prominent local commentators have quit for good recently. First, there was Michael Chugani, who was, for many years, the host of TVB English-language programmes Straight Talk and News Watch English, and columnist for the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

Now, it’s Ivan Choy Chi-keung, who after more than two decades, may be the longest-serving columnist at Ming Pao, the respected Chinese-language broadsheet. He is also a senior lecturer in politics and public administration at Chinese University.

I can’t say I generally agree with them, or share their political positions. But I respect and admire their insights and knowledge. There was a deep melancholy expressed by both men when asked about their decisions.

“I just feel really tired, and I have been doing this for so many years, I have not had the time to rest or relax,” Chugani told a local online news site. “I’m, frankly speaking, very burnt out, and I just don’t have any inspiration left to continue to do anything.

“We all know that there are red lines, and I just want to think carefully [about] what these red lines mean for me, so that’s why I’m taking a break.”

Choy wrote a long farewell column in Ming Pao last week, also citing fatigue, but hinting at deeper despair, a general mood he detected within the local community.

“Today everyone feels this deeply,” he wrote. “In the past two years, the people of Hong Kong have cried and expressed their determination to change, and they did not hesitate to pay a heavy price for this, but the result was worse than if they had stood still.

“Democracy, freedom and human rights all regressed sharply, and many people were completely heartbroken for this, and finally reluctantly chose to leave and emigrate, leaving this sad place that was declining day by day.”

In this regard, it’s instructive that he refers to an influential book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, by the German social scientist Albert O. Hirschman.

The theme of the book certainly seems to fit the current predicament of some Hong Kong people. When an organisation, a political party, a company, a social club or your marriage is in decline, Hirschman observes, people usually respond in one of three ways: you quit and go away; you complain and demand changes; or you stay behind, work from within to effect change or hope for the best.

They certainly help categorise Hong Kong’s protest movement and anti-government/Beijing political parties, as well as the current emigration wave, especially those holders of BN(O) passports moving to Britain with their families as a way of escape. There are others who believe Hong Kong still has much potential and can be improved or reformed from within.

I can certainly understand their sentiment, given their perceptions of decline, disintegration and authoritarian irreversibility. But I disagree with them. A company undergoing much-needed restructuring inevitably causes criticism, discontent and anger among employees, especially those being made redundant. A political system being reformed and overhauled will always result in its fair share of dissidents and rejectionists.

In Hong Kong, what seems like decline and degeneration is, for me, a regime change, or if you like, a paradigm shift. Since we are referencing Western social scientists, let me, instead, refer to science historian Thomas Kuhn and his classic text, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The physics and astronomy of Newton and Galileo were not necessarily “better” than the physics of Aristotle and the astronomy of Ptolemy. They are so radically different in concepts, theories, methods, training and equipment that they amount to two very different scientific world views, two incompatible paradigms.

As it is with paradigm shift, so it is with political regime change. Those who are in charge of the new regime will always say their system is superior; those of the old regime, if they survive, will defame the new regime. They rarely see eye to eye, and it has always been so.

The political regime change or paradigm change imposed by Beijing in Hong Kong is necessarily seen as degenerate by those who oppose it. That may be so, but it may not be. Only time will tell. I, for one, will not rule out significant improvement or betterment, or at least something, though vastly different, is no worse than before, in the years and decades ahead.