Public debate on civic matters conducted within the letters pages of popular newspapers has a long history all over the world. Since the earliest English-language newspapers on the China coast appeared in the 1820s, letters to the editor have expressed personal viewpoints in a public forum.
At their best, these communal conversations help drive broader local engagement. Alert government officials keep a weather eye on specific details, and leader writers respond with editorials inspired by recent letters-column exchanges. Chronic roadworks, the lamentable state of gutters and drains, parking regulation infringements and so on are perennial letters-page staples. Vitriolic venting upon real or perceived annoyances has always been more usual (because easier) than proposing solutions for particular issues, and Hong Kong is no exception.
In closely interwoven societies like Hong Kong, relative anonymity was essential for social survival, especially when sharply contrarian viewpoints were being expressed. From an editor’s perspective, some contrived obscurity was necessary if a reasonable diversity of opinion was to be encouraged. And even then, a letter signed “Night-Jar, The Peak,” or “Disgusted of Kowloon Tong”, hardly guaranteed complete concealment. Writing styles, general tone and – in particular – the echoing of a stridently voiced opinion on a controversial civic matter expounded over multiple dinner tables, and a near-identical, virtually contemporaneous letter to the newspapers, were usually dead giveaways.
For decades, a not insignificant proportion of published letters found within Hong Kong’s English-language press have started life in schools as student compositions. Teachers select anodyne contemporary-interest subjects that are readily amenable to reasoned “for and against” arguments. This provenance explains why so many letters eventually chosen for publication are firmly adolescent in both sentiment and mode of expression. Animal welfare, pollution and litter, exam pressure and similar subjects are perennial classroom staples; an eyebrow-raising, so-called “English” name usually casts the deciding vote for publication. And to judge from their occasional opinion-pages contributions, many of Hong Kong’s leading public figures have never outgrown their Form Three English class selves in terms of argument style and substance.
These days, many once-inveterate letter writers have migrated to internet forums. Let’s face it, online media seldom encourages civilised public debate. Reactions to a particular story or comment thread evolve near-instantaneously and soon ricochet off topic. As any reader of “comments” sections soon learns – even within mainstream, media online feedback is more usually a fevered reaction to isolated words, phrases or perceived meanings than a serious critique of what was originally written.
Although some regular letter writers in earlier times had obvious personal or professional agendas to push, online forums have spawned an exponential rise of “trolls”. Like the nasty, unseen goblins of Norse mythology that lurk under life’s bridges to waylay and harm the unwary, these pseudonymous “voices” have obvious broader agendas; it is widely assumed – particularly for comments made either from or about China – that numerous writers are paid by interested parties. “Wumao” – fifty-centers (the Chinese term refers to the payment individuals receive per post) – are an obvious staple of any China-related comment thread. Rabid remarks phrased in translation-app English offer a typical “wumao” giveaway.
Godwin’s law is a rule-of-thumb that estimates how many posts will be made before Hitler and the Nazis are dragged in; the first person to do so is deemed to have lost the argument – whatever the original topic. Hong Kong, unsurprisingly, has its own equivalent of Godwin’s law; how many posts a sensible exchange will last before some mouth-frothing wumao tirade about the opium wars, British colonialism or parliamentary democracy’s manifold shortcomings lathers forth and shuts down whatever the original (usually totally unrelated) discussion subject may have been.