[SCMP Column] Political Mess

September 10, 2016

What a sorry mess our politics are. We seem to have invented for Hong Kong a political architecture unique in its complexity, and as dysfunctional as any I know. It is hard to believe it was created by intelligent people whose intentions were good. The only grim comfort is that so many other political systems have similarly infuriating shortcomings.

As the dust settles around our sixth Legco elections since China assumed sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, it is still too early to predict how the new Legco will emerge. But of two things we can be sure: it will be significantly changed. And in all likelihood change will be for the worse. We may need to be braced for a further five years of policy paralysis and filibustrous frustration.

Interestingly, we have a younger, more militant and confrontational set of Legislators. The youngest Legco member in our last Legco was 35, and the average age of Legislators was 58. Today our youngest member is 23, and 8 are younger than 35. We don’t yet have the average age of our 70 new legislators, but it will be significantly below 58. The youthfulness of geographically elected members contrasts sharply with the greyer age profile of functional constituency members. (Should we not feel embarrassed that every single functional constituency member is a man?)

This youthful shift is almost certainly giving Beijing heartburn – and for good reason. But there is without question an urgent need for our administration to take more careful account of the concerns they express. From the Occupy movement to the latest elections, the sharp reminder is that most Hong Kongers under 30 have experienced nothing but economic setbacks and uncertainty – from the 1998 Asian Financial crisis forward. There are good reasons they are angry and anxious.

The political forthrightness of this young generation is also in dramatic and fascinating contrast to Hong Kong peoples’ traditional aversion to political activism. Go back through to the 1980s and the conventional wisdom was that Hong Kong people, most of them recent refugees from the Mainland, were deeply reluctant to engage in any way with authority. The assumption was that getting embroiled with authority in any form was to be avoided – whether it was government officials, police, legal disputes, or any form of politics. The refugee reflex was to keep head down, leave the British colonials to run the government, focus on business and pray officialdom stays out of your hair.

Today, all is changed. Our younger generation, many of them returning to Hong Kong from childhood in Canada or other western countries, have no fear of political engagement, and have discarded the refugee mindset to regard Hong Kong as long term home. This must surely be normal and good, but makes them much less passive and compliant than the pre-1997 generation. And with youthfulness comes naivity and a blissful unawareness of their lack of balance and experience. One can only pray that this new and activist generation quickly learn how much more complicated and compromise-riddled the world is, in contrast with the naively sophomoric ideals that have launched them into political careers. Note that in the original Greek, a sophomore is a “wise fool”.

In a normal functioning democracy, parties coalescing around coherent menus of policy commitments – what we would normally call a manifesto – use elections to engage battle in the court of public opinion. Manifestos contain comprehensive and coherent policy menus created to build electoral support. In Hong Kong, because Legislators have no power to initiate legislation, merely to block and tackle, so our Legco candidates have been woefully bereft of coherent policy proposals. Many candidates’ “manifestos” were laughably brief and simplistic. They provide scant guidance about how they will vote or behave once the Legco session begins.

Even if our Legco sophomores quickly learn pragmatic realism, some things are unlikely to change, and suggest political storms ahead. First, their dislike of CY Leung seems visceral. And second, overall negativity towards Beijing seems widespread. Despite explicit insistence from Mainland officials that discussion of Hong Kong independence would be regarded as treasonous, we now have a number of outspoken advocates for independence inside Legco.

As attention will now doubtless shift to the election in seven months time of Hong Kong’s future Chief Executive, the grim and disappointing reality is that very little work of substance is likely to be achieved. CY Leung went into the Legco elections generally expected to be re-elected as Chief Executive in March next year. He has emerged looking very shaky – not because of a tumble in support among Hong Kong voters because that support has been low for a long time, but because Beijing’s mandate can no longer be assured.

No matter how shaky, CY and his administration must urgently take a number of lessons away from this election. First, the reality is that Legco will remain firmly focused on arguments over constitutional reform, and will drive policymakers crazy with filibustrous theatrics. People like me who want Legco to focus on “getting stuff done” are going to be disappointed.

Second, the single most important source of activism and alienation is economic anxiety. Since the Asian Financial crisis in 1998, Hong Kong’s middle classes have seen stagnant incomes, job uncertainty, sharply rising inequality, and property price rises that has made home-ownership an impossible dream. This economic malaise must be tackled as an urgent priority. Most important, widening inequality must be tackled. But almost as important will be to make home-ownership a realistic possibility again. And a 160 sq ft shoebox does not count as a home.

Arguments over democracy and the constitution may be the main way of expressing the distress, but with better jobs and better salaries the ferocity of such arguments would subside – along with the disingenuous demands for independence. In truth, Hong Kong people wish for independence no more than they wish for full integration into China. What we need is a political system that allows this middle ground to be explored with less heat and more light. Unhappily, this new Legco is unlikely to deliver that.
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