18 February 2019
Link REIT was a heated topic of debate during the 2012 Legislative Council election. Photo: HKEJ
Link REIT was a heated topic of debate during the 2012 Legislative Council election. Photo: HKEJ

Political debates need not be boring

For years elections in Hong Kong have been notorious for their monotony, and the lack of substantial campaign themes that can truly engage the public.

In fact, some have referred to the Legislative Council elections as “single-issue” elections.

From the debate over the June 4 incident to the controversy over the roadmap towards universal suffrage and escalating cross-border tensions, these are all single issues that have been dominating our elections for decades.

And things just get worse in next month’s Legco election, where there are dozens of lists of candidates running in every geographical constituency.

It has become very difficult for voters to tell who’s who, let alone remember their election pledges.

In the 2012 Legco election, the heated debate among candidates over whether the government should buy out the Link REIT lent vibrancy to the entire election campaign.

Unfortunately, the subject turned out to be just a “one-hit wonder”, and failed to change the norms of our election culture.

In subsequent elections, monotonous, run-of-the-mill subjects have made a comeback and once again dominated the debates.

Another reason why our election debates often lack depth and are so boring is the notoriously short attention span of our voters, as well as their outright indifference to anything that doesn’t concern their daily lives, or more precisely, their livelihood.

As a result, candidates who want to inject substance to the election debates by introducing a higher purpose or more abstract and profound political ideas into their campaign often find themselves unable to resonate with their constituents who are simply not interested in what they are saying.

Simply put, if they try to be scholastic or high-brow, they might end up losing the election.

Even the most mediocre candidates understand that there is no shortage of profound and meaningful debate topics other than “buying out the Link REIT” and “increasing public housing supply” which have been repeated over and over again in the past two decades.

The problem is, the general public is hardly interested in anything other than those pragmatic topics. Hence, the stagnation of the quality of our election debates.

On the other hand, even if some local candidates do want to push back the frontiers of political debates and be more innovative and inspiring, they often fail to think outside the box.

As a result, they usually end up getting stuck at the stage of arguing over some narrow social and political principles such as “for or against welfare state” or “how to redistribute wealth”.

It got me thinking, why couldn’t our local politicians just come up with some simple yet profound political ideas that can truly electrify our voters and re-ignite their passion?

There’s the concept of “property-owning democracy” preached by John Rawls.

(Editor’s note: John Rawls, 1921-2002, was a highly influential American philosopher and a professor with the Harvard University. His famous 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, has been widely considered to be “the most important work in moral philosophy since the end of the Second World War” and is now regarded by universities across the globe as “one of the primary texts in political philosophy”.)

According to Rawls, “justice means equality”, and in order to enhance social equality, governments should promote equality right from the base: which is, at the stage of the means and capital of production, rather than through redistribution of wealth and the so-called “trickle-down effect” at the superstructure level.

Rawls believed that in order to enhance social equality, the capital of production should be owned by the general public more equally and evenly.

However, it is important to note that Rawls was not proposing any form of communal economy, nor was he a supporter of commune-style government.

He was still very much for private ownership, which he believed forms the cornerstone of modern capitalism, only that he was also convinced that there is still a lot of room for improvement as far as private ownership is concerned.

I believe Rawls’ theories can definitely provide us with some valuable insights into how local politicians can get profound messages across through simple words.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 15.

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Member of the Shadow Long Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee, a non-governmental organization

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