The lessons of history

December 07, 2016 15:06
A copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf. If we do not learn from the lessons of history, civilization will pay a terrible price. Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong lives cheek by jowl with a ruthless one-party autocracy, despite which it enjoys a remarkable degree of free thought and speech.

Lately, however, its freedoms are beginning to feel like a soap bubble perched on the back of a hedgehog, liable to be punctured at any moment.

The glory of Hong Kong is the product of a laissez-faire government approach to commerce, a vibrant international body of financial professionals and an incorruptible judiciary dispensing justice according to common law principles.

These are the values that Deng Xiaoping wished to encapsulate in his concept of "one country, two systems".

Of the two residual governing powers retained by Beijng, defence and foreign relations, even the latter is subject to a concession which gives Hong Kong an individual seat in many international bodies.

The rank stupidity of two legislators who demonstrated their infantile disregard for the body to which they had been elected by insulting China and making a mockery of their oath, provided a weak excuse for histrionic screams of offense and the dragon’s iron claw to burst out of Beijing’s synthetic velvet glove.

Hypersensitivity to perceive insult is a symptom of insecurity, personified by Leung Chun-ying.

Taken with the bookseller drama, these events ought to serve as a timely warning that our prized freedoms are living on borrowed time.

Already people have forgotten that before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the free world, especially Western Europe, lived in a state of constant apprehension against the risk of a communist Anschluss.

As the political dictatorships fell, people believed that the liberal winds of change would spread their benign influence across the globe and that repressive regimes would gradually yield to the yearnings of the oppressed for freedom.

In the event, collectively, liberal democracies took their eyes off the ball.

Inevitably, China, the most populous country in the world and the most intractable of autocracies, was always going to be the most resistant to change.

It is too easily forgotten that its geographical size, disparate ethnic grouping and fractured social history make it the most difficult country to govern.

Logically, it can be argued that only an autocratic regime such as the Communist Party of China is capable of governing it.

Hong Kongers are fooling themselves if they believe that they can look to Western civilization for succor.

Because, suddenly, the fissures in the Western liberal democracies are becoming glaringly evident as popular dissatisfaction proves alarmingly incendiary.

A combination of a technical revolution that continues to accelerate at a dizzying pace and an ungovernable quest for cheaper production costs has diluted or destroyed the historical manufacturing bases of most advanced economies.

The new technological industries do not provide employment for the semi-skilled.

The dispossessed workforces grow impatient with their lot, their sense of grievance fueled by the disparity they see with the obscene earnings of those whom they regard as non-productive members of society.

Whether it be Mexicans in the United States, Poles in the United Kingdom, Turks in Germany or North Africans in Italy and Greece, immigrants are viewed as stealing the jobs of the indigenous population, a perception fostered by ultra nationalist politicians.

Toss in a handful of Islamic terrorists and the pot is bubbling too close to the surface.

Into their respective kitchens stride the megalomaniac ghosts of the 1930s: Trump, Erdogan, Orban, Putin, Wilders, Le Pen, even the midget Farage, all spouting their populist poison of purist national identity, stirring up fear and xenophobia.

The bedrock of Nazism, identified by the swastika, was cleansing communities so as to achieve racial purity.

Today’s narcissistic demagogues offer a menu of false promises to constituents all too ready to believe the balderdash and piffle that they are fed and too unsophisticated to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Truth is an ingredient lamentably missing from their recipe.

The world should be trembling with apprehension as Trump assembles his coterie of henchmen, all too frighteningly reminiscent of the Third Reich as they salute motor mouth.

The wheel of history turns. If we do not read its signals and learn from its lessons, civilization will pay a terrible price.

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Queen's Counsel