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Monday, June 24, 2019, 00:47
HK politics and the digital echo chamber
By Andrew Sheng
Monday, June 24, 2019, 00:47 By Andrew Sheng

The young in Hong Kong are celebrating what they think is a victory in their search for democracy and a voice. Those who are older think that while the protests show what Hong Kong does not want (exactly like how the British voted for Brexit), no one now knows what the future will hold. Indeed, there are those who think the protests would or should invoke another round of tougher actions.

Who is right and what is wrong?

The fact that the crowds got larger and larger is a reflection of how social media now feeds the echo chambers of all digital fans. This is a trend that is happening globally, as what you read on your smartphone is a five second summary and confirmation of what you like. Anything you do not like is immediately deleted or mentally rejected. Hence, all your preferences and prejudices are amplified as the artificial intelligence bots just keep on feeding your ego. The fact that Joshua Wong Chi-fung or Anson Chan Fang On-sang keep on getting CNN attention means that they think they are icons of Hong Kong’s conscience. Great for their egos, but is this reality?

The present dilemma is a total failure of the Hong Kong elites to engage and deal with their own inequalities

The echo chambers of social media creates cocoons of “reality” that individuals think that they have unlimited freedom and choice. They forget that even the Facebooks of this world are increasingly being regulated as to what they can feed their subscribers. Reality becomes what bots you use or what someone wants you to believe. If sections of society can disturb the stability of the whole society through being fed continuous information that stresses polarization and alienation from the whole, will the system fragment? And who will take responsibility for this?

In 1928, US sociologists William and Dorothy Thomas formulated their Thomas Theorem — that interpretation of reality (right or wrong) causes an action. In other words, what people think is real has real consequences. Some call this a self-fulfilling prophecy. So will the two sides of the Hong Kong debate come together or be driven so far apart that more drastic action will have to be taken?

Hong Kong is a hard rock caught in the tide of her colonial history. Under the British, they were given total commercial freedom, so long as they don’t have the electoral vote. So, after they left, the British led Hong Kong people to believe that they deserve and can quickly get “one person, one vote” — a Hong Kong right the British denied them for 157 years. Since the Hong Kong elites were trained not to be political as that would threaten British rule, Hong Kong citizens were not prepared for the difficult task of political convergence ahead.

But the hard reality is that one fifth of mankind — 1.4 billion people on the Chinese mainland — are not institutionally ready for immediate convergence to the Hong Kong living standards and degrees of autonomy. So Deng Xiaoping conceived the transitory step of “one country, two systems”.

Herein lies the difference in interpretation. The mainland stresses “one country” and the Hong Kong protesters think “two systems” can override the Chinese Constitution. That is not correct; the fate of Hong Kong will depend very much on how the sovereign authority decides her future within the context of global considerations.

Those Hong Kong people who think that Chris Patten and Britain will come to the rescue will have to think again, because under Brexit, Great Britain is at risk of becoming little England. It will have lots to worry about, including her own future. Furthermore, the US may want to pass laws about Hong Kong’s special position, but with US and China now at loggerheads, Hong Kong residents will have to decide where their ultimate loyalty lies.

As the old saying goes, you may not want to seek trouble, but trouble seeks you. Hong Kong is at risk of becoming the Berlin of the Cold War.

The roots of social discontent in Hong Kong are fully understandable. The youth face disruption and uncertain future wherever they look. Being more conversant in Cantonese than English or Putonghua, they cannot compete in jobs against those who can afford to go to Ivy League universities or top mainland universities. To try and do a startup means paying exorbitant rents in Hong Kong. Their dream of home ownership has been dashed because the real estate community persuaded the Hong Kong government to abandon the drive to build 85,000 units of affordable housing annually after the Asian financial crisis. Many Hong Kong youths cannot migrate northward to start businesses on the mainland, because they know only how to operate within the legal system and high social safety nets of Hong Kong.

Consequently, the “Occupy Central” movement and current protests reflect an underlying question of social inequality that the Hong Kong elites never properly addressed — how to overcome vested interests to get real structural reforms.

The present dilemma is a total failure of the Hong Kong elites to engage and deal with their own inequalities.

To be fair, the mainland elites also made the mistake of first believing the real estate faction that keeps Hong Kong economically prosperous will solve any political dilemma. This is exactly believing the myth that free markets solve everything. Free markets cannot address structural deficiencies and imbalances that only strong governments can deal with. And without strong public support, you end up with weak governments and beleaguered civil servants, including the much-vaunted police force, being caught daily in the media in an accusatory meat-grinder. No wonder the best and brightest do not want to join the civil service because public service is today a daily affair for apologies. You are blamed for trying to do anything, so the best thing is to do nothing.

But the public expects you to do something!

Even in the United States, “the land of the free”, the four freedoms of speech, rights, migration and voting are being tested — what are the limits and “hard-budget constraints” of absolute freedom of speech and human rights? How much is voting being bought or gerrymandered? Instead of looking at individual freedom, what are costs and constraints for society as a whole? These are tough questions, with no simple answers.

Politics has always been the art of compromise, not of the deal. Purists on both sides argue on the finer points of principle, forgetting that further escalation threatens the stability of everyone. To many who have worked in and admire Hong Kong, the city is too valuable a beacon of what can be achieved with imagination — a barren rock filled with human talent. Today that talent appears to demand what may not be practical or immediately achievable, and they are being fed the echoes of their own self-importance.

It is time to get real — there are no permanent friends, permanent enemies, only permanent interests. To change, to adapt, to evolve with the times — that is the quantum reality of survival under technological disruption and geopolitical rivalry.

The author is a senior current affairs commentator. This is an excerpted translation of his Chinese article published earlier in Hong Kong Commercial Daily.

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