In these strange, unsettling times, various public commentators have taken it upon themselves to crow triumphantly that Hong Kong and its people are finally going back to what – in their otherwise historically illiterate minds – the place always did best; shut up, make money, consume vacuously and conspicuously, and then get out (if one wishes) and enjoy an afterlife elsewhere, while there are still a few good miles left on life’s odometer. After all, the selfish logic inexorably went, why bother to try to make Hong Kong better for yourself, and those who come after you? Cash in your chips, have a last raucous party and then decamp elsewhere , without a backward glance towards the place and the people that had given you so much. For much of Hong Kong’s urban history, this grim observation was a fair one, for most residents, in particular the Chinese population who – until recent decades – were overwhelmingly sojourners who regarded their time in Hong Kong as transient, even for an entire lifetime. Cold realism played a role; when opportunities for participation in public life were – by design – non-existent for the overwhelming majority, there were clearly better things to do with one’s time and energies than play pointless games of political charades. For almost everyone else, the basic struggle for existence was paramount; those who remained a few rice bowls ahead of hunger were life’s fortunate folk. In the post-war era, large-scale refugee movement from mainland China diluted and transformed Hong Kong society. Those who had voted with their feet against vicious political campaigns wanted nothing more than to live their lives in peace. Hong Kong became a way station, with much that reflected this temporary, “this-will-do-for-now” mindset. Good government – which provided life’s basic requirements and otherwise left people alone, even if it was a foreign administration – was preferable to the alternative they had fled. Actual malevolence at senior levels of the local administration (as opposed to the common-or-garden stupidity found in bureaucracies anywhere) was absent; this was all most people wanted. The past provides useful illuminations for the present, though often not in ways that contemporary power brokers might wish. Hong Kong is inexorably returning to an earlier time, somewhere before the first tentative attempts at local government elections were held, in the early 1950s. Wholesale, across-the-board resignations of capable, caring participants from local public life, and the shuttering of even the most innocuous forms of participation in civil society , should be matters for concern. But are they? When virtually no point exists for participation in public life, people with talent and ability will quietly direct their enthusiasms to ends that appear worthwhile. Why even bother with sham participation in wearisome debates, with approved scripts and predetermined outcomes? Far better to devote one’s energies to business and the accumulation of wealth, and enjoy all the material pleasures that this largesse could provide. What now remains in public life, after the “troublemakers” have been stripped away? Diploma-mill “degree” holders, sourced from post office box “universities” on remote Pacific islands; rural “fixers” – to label them charitably; the scions of former industrial dynasties, including, in one well-publicised case, an individual so profoundly stupid that, during the 2016 electoral reform exercise, when unable to even vote as their handlers instructed, they experienced a tearful outburst in the Legislative Council chamber and – apparently – a fearful bawling out from their ancient parent on returning home; the sad list trudges on. But at the end of the hour, these substellar specimens are safe sets of hands; just like the allegedly representative, carefully chosen, “tame cat” colonial appointees decades ago, today’s ciphers will rock no wider boats – especially when their own vested interests are involved – as Hong Kong gradually morphs into a new version of the “old normal”.