We need a better Establishment

August 28, 2020 08:58
Photo: Reuters

There are times when I reflect upon the past year of events, and think, “We’re well and truly through the looking-glass here.”

Life imitates art. Art is a mimicry of human instincts. Human instincts can be collapsed into the most primordial thoughts of all – survival and reproduction. And that’s, really, what politics in Hong Kong has always been about: to live, to let live, and to enable others to live (much as the Smiths from the Matrix trilogy, which, I’ll take the pleasure in noting, has its fourth movie coming up next year).

The Establishment is bent on survival. Its primary matrix of survival constitutes serving its bosses – its constituents, Beijing, and the local Establishment. Yet survival is more than just breathing and acting, it’s also about cutting corners, minimising risks, and limiting the extent to which unnecessary energy could be squandered. This is echoed by the fact that the quickest and easiest ways of replicating and consolidating support often indeed do not involve “higher-order thinking” – support is best garnered instead via jingoistic rhetoric, bombastic fanfare, and plucking the chords that invoke loyalty to the “cause”. Through materialism-driven populism, and myopic promises revolving around “better livelihood”, Hong Kong’s Pro-Establishment had thrived for the larger part of the twenty-three years since the handover.

After all, it’s low risk, no pain, less – but certain – gain.

Yet it is the inertia and indifference of the Establishment towards the structural problems underpinning Hong Kong today – ranging from the yearning for political inclusion and representation of the masses, to the city’s entrenched socioeconomic inequalities, to its frankly archaic laws with regards to minority and female empowerment, to its precipitously declining workforce competitiveness – that has partially led us to where we are today. Of course, the intransigence of the Pan-Democrats, the bureaucratic ineptitude of past administrations, the entrenchment of vested corporate interests, and – finally – the continually widening gulf between Beijing and Hong Kong – must also be faulted.

Yet on the subject of Beijing: Folks often enjoy attributing Hong Kong’s plights today to Beijing – they posit that Beijing is bent on transforming Hong Kong into “just another ordinary Chinese city”. Yet this claim both over-estimates Beijing’s resolve and capacity in ostensibly puppeteering the Hong Kong administration, and under-estimates the extent to which Beijing and Hong Kong’s incentives do indeed align and converge over the city’s economic competitiveness and unique rule of law. The past six months have seen a definite rollback to the civil and political liberties that our city has long cherished – yet this did not come out of nowhere; it instead was the culmination of a decade-long tragic tug-of-war between the US and China, which meant that our city drew the short end of the stick. It’s no use crying over spilled milk, but it behoves us to at least see where and why the milk was spilled.

The Establishment must serve Beijing – it’s part of its founding mission, after all. All’s fair in love and war – if the Pan-Democrats’ telos is to serve and represent those who yearn for universal suffrage and democracy, then it is the remit and duty of the Pro-Establishment to govern, or to facilitate Hong Kong’s governance. Yet it has opted to do so in the most risible and, frankly, irresponsible way possible – in a manner that prioritises performative gestures over substantive policy visions; that rewards mass mobilisation to “celebrate” the city’s governance, as opposed to offering constructive critique of it; that sycophantically amplifies every word and letter of Beijing, as opposed to serving as a critical bridge between the city and Beijing.

I have many friends within the Pro-Establishment camp who are eminently reasonable, qualified, and well-equipped individuals. Yet the hamartia of the camp, they confess in me, lies with its heavy emphasis upon hierarchy, which is in turn governed by laws of patronage networks and externalised loyalty. Hong Kong’s Pro-Establishment camp can do better – it needs talents that understand the needs and specific demands of Beijing, but who also possess international vision and contacts; it requires individuals with not only bureaucratic or administrative capabilities, but also policy innovation and vision. Above all, it needs a horizontal flattening of hierarchies and the mass injection of fresh blood. Here are a few suggestions.

Firstly, Hong Kong’s Pro-Establishment camp must pivot away from “Loyalty” and “Stability” as its defining ethos, and instead champion quality governance as its motto and source of legitimacy. From establishing more representative consultative committees on local or sectoral levels, to engaging the youth in devising policy proposals reflective of their needs and values, to communicating Hong Kongers’ demands in a way that is mutually beneficial for both Beijing and Hong Kong. The underlying prerequisite here, of course, is that established lawmakers and heavyweights must undertake a leap of faith – one that enables them to engage and access the demographics that have felt traditionally alienated by their recalcitrant dogma. Moreover, it behoves the administration to cultivate and nurture fresh blood, free of connections with existing patronage networks, who could step up to govern this cosmopolitan city. From offering them fieldwork experience to internships under governments in the Mainland or in neighbouring countries, there is much that the Hong Kong government could do in uplifting the quality of its prospective governing talents.

Moreover, it’s high time for the Establishment to develop a discourse and vision of their own for the city – it is frankly ludicrous that this city’s pro-Establishment lawmakers would be so oblivious to the imminent challenges confronting mankind and Hong Kong in the 21st century; that our supposed champions of the people are clueless about what the people actually want, need, or fear. Stability is great! But stability can’t answer the pleas for help of the downtrodden; can’t aid Hong Kong in becoming, once again, a world-class city; can’t ensure that our youth feel that there’s a stake in Hong Kong for them, from them. Thus Pro-Establishment lawmakers would fare better by thinking less about winning the elections in the short-term, and more about where Hong Kong should be in twenty, thirty years’ time.

Finally, the Pro-Establishment camp must recognise that “serving Beijing” requires more than lip-service. As a part of China, our city needs lawmakers who can understand the challenges and drawbacks in our country, and identify niches and ways in which Hong Kong’s autonomous governance could complement its growth trajectory. “One Country, Two Systems” isn’t about collapsing one system into the other system – it’s about uniting two disparate systems under a single country, and seeking to preserve the values and institutions that make our city special, whilst reconciling such uniqueness with the interests of the country at large.

We need a better Establishment.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review