There is a famous Japanese haiku which is often translated as “Barn’s burnt down, now I can see the moon”. Unlike many other haiku, the meaning of this is quite easy to grasp: That disasters and tragedies can give us a completely new perspective that is, in the end, beneficial. It is also easy to see why this might be a useful lesson for Hong Kong now. However difficult things seem, we will emerge from this crisis and it would be good to think now about the Hong Kong that we would like to see. During World War II, when things were looking bleak on the military front, Winston Churchill’s government had already commissioned William Beveridge to design the blueprint for what, postwar, became the welfare state. If that could be done under such grave circumstances, we can surely manage something equally forward-looking.
We must expect that things will be on a more modest scale than in the years immediately before the protests and the coronavirus epidemic. These have been terrible body blows to our economy and, although the SAR is fortunate to have considerable reserves, we must anticipate a lot of expenditures required for simple relief measures as it will take time for employment to recover. We can look forward to a period of restraint: No ambitious new infrastructure projects or grand festivals to attract tourists. Instead, we may wish to take a cool look at our economy and its most promising sectors. We may wish to reconsider our dependence on tourism. We have no idea to what extent the new coronavirus is going to travel around the world, but it may well be that there will be less appetite for going far from home. We know from our experience with the effects of the protests in 2019 that our financial services sector is resilient. Its role is also highly consistent with the plans in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area strategy. We can also see some encouraging buds in the technology fields with Hong Kong startups doing well in artificial intelligence, fintech and pioneering pharmaceuticals.
In keeping with the humbler attitude, we can shift our focus so that we are emphasizing the grassroots of our community, the people who keep our economy humming along but have not been getting their share of our prosperity. We know already what needs to be done: more public housing, more diverse career opportunities (environmental protection, recycling and others dovetailing with idealistic young minds) and improved public medical services (mental healthcare in particular). It is a matter of determination, shoulder to the wheel to bring these things about as soon as possible. We know that part of the roots of the destructive protests lay in a sense of nihilism and disenchantment among our young people so we must be able to make realistic promises that study and hard work will be rewarded with a decent lifestyle. As a minor matter, we could let Ocean Park revert to its original purpose as a recreational and educational facility for the people of Hong Kong and shave off the amusement-park elements that have crept in over the years. We need to do everything we can to ensure that all the facilities built with public funds are accessible to all; otherwise, resentment will only grow by those excluded by lack of means.
However difficult things seem, we will emerge from this crisis and it would be good to think now about the Hong Kong that we would like to see
And now we come to the most difficult part: changing people’s hearts and minds and the way in which they interact with each other. If we are honest, we will admit that for at least 20 years, we have tolerated appalling standards of behavior in our public life, particularly among our politicians. We need to see a return to basic courtesy, where an opponent’s ideas and proposals are attacked rather than the person themselves. We need to drain our public discourse of the sort of hyperbole more suited to some sort of comic book adventure and return to a measured assessment of situations. The politicians must set themselves up as models of good character rather than engaging in character assassination of their opponents as has happened all too often. In recent years, we have allowed our once-cohesive community to degenerate into a sort of civil war. At the radical end of this are dangerous criminals, and we must support the police to deal with them. In the big middle is a group of the formerly reasonable who now see their fellow citizens as “dogs” or “cockroaches”. They are nothing of the kind; they are people and people with whom we must rebuild relationships so that together we can effectively tackle the many urgent tasks ahead. We should listen with open minds and hearts even to those we don’t like and set an example of civilized discourse to find solutions.
Over recent years, social media have added to the toxic brew. If you already have fixed, extreme views, your iPhone or computer will help you to find more of the same, as well as plausible but utterly false stories that confirm your prejudices. Not so long ago, we got our understanding of the world from major media organizations which, for all their faults, could be held to some sort of standard of fact-checking. The ease the new technology has availed us in communication seems to trivialize our sharing of “news”, however dubious they may seem. As Malaysian physician Dr Swee Kheng Khor has advised, “Entire education systems must be revamped to train the population how to search for, verify and use information”.
A daunting agenda, but this and a more-respectful political climate may yet become our moonshot to recapture our communitywide decency and harmony that was the bedrock of our earlier success.
The author is a co-host of RTHK’s Backchat radio program and supporter of various welfare NGOs. She is a former assistant director of social welfare.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.