Being able to review the past dispassionately and form honest judgments based on what we know, now, about actual circumstances and events, then, is the key challenge in the study of history.
While we enjoy hindsight’s benefit, those living in earlier times had, as an ancient Chinese saying maintains, “to cross the river by feeling the stones”; in other words, to put one’s best foot forward into unknown currents and hope for the best. Nevertheless, some historical decisions with obvious ramifications for the future were clearly ill-considered at the time they were made. And so we arrive at contemporary Hong Kong ’s manifold travails.
Academic discussions about Hong Kong independence, to cite one example, would have passed unnoticed by the general public had they not been fired by the frantic attempts of interested parties to suppress all mention of it. Frenzied bedwetting right across the political spectrum over discussion of Hong Kong independence in recent months has accorded serious official legitimacy to a nascent political movement that – in practical terms alone – is too ridiculous for words.
One inescapable fact remains. Had Hong Kong been significantly better governed since the 1997 handover, the “independence” conversation that now poisons public life would never have occurred. For why would it have done? Such debates only happen when discontent reaches critical levels.
Contrafactual analysis – by posing the question “What would have happened if…?” – is a useful intellectual tool when exploring history’s trajectory, and can indicate how an alternative course of action might have led to a different set of outcomes. Hong Kong ’s “nativist” lobby, and its clearly trackable rise over the past decade, is a prime example.
What if successive local administrations had enjoyed greater popular legitimacy, rather than the sham endorsement of a so-called “election race”, that is transparently nothing of the kind? And what if those selected to rule had designed, explained and then courageously enacted well thought out, proactive policies for the benefit of all Hong Kong people, not just entrenched elites and politically privileged interest groups?
What if public life had not become so toxic that few – beyond the current self-servers, time servers and political and intellectual also-rans – will go anywhere near it? What if career administrators were not required to behave like politicians – instead allowing their skills to shine through, rather than being made to look and sound like hopelessly out-of-touch mediocrities?
What if Hong Kong’s ongoing integration with China had been managed in a sensitive, gradualist manner, with due recognition that change is disconcerting to most and that not everything about the “one country” approach is locally beneficial? And what if official discourse had not been so raddled with deliberate obfuscation, serial insults to the intelligence, outright lies, official corruption, collusion and bad faith that few believe much of what officialdom has to say any more?
What if what has passed for an elected opposition since 1997 had behaved as loyal oppositions generally do in serious polities elsewhere and either supported or constructively critiqued government policy, depending on the circumstances, instead of behaving like a deliberately obstructionist rabble?
Most reasonable answers to these theoretical questions would indicate a very different society to today’s embittered, hopelessly polarised, political mess. Far fewer young people would be seriously considering the option of checking out altogether (according to polls, more than 40 per cent would leave Hong Kong if they could). By 2047, these individuals will be at the pinnacle of their careers. Promising young lawyers, in particular, it seems are seriously rethinking their long-term futures here. And who can blame them?