Fixing governance requires a paradigm shift

February 19, 2021 09:49
Photo: RTHK

It is incredibly difficult to govern.

As a student and scholar of politics, I am acutely aware of the fact that ivory tower theories and ideals do not map nicely or neatly onto real politics. Governance is always an act – both in the sense of an individual gesture, but also as an ‘Act’ in a larger play – that requires acumen and astute judgment. How does one balance competing interests? How does one maneuver and navigate the room between rival factions? Above all, can one speak to the people, whilst maintaining one’s stature and standing amongst the movers and shakers in town?

I’d hence like to preface the following by noting that I do not envy, for a minute, those in positions of great power. With power comes responsibility, with responsibility comes the opportunity to fail, and with the opportunity to fail, the demise of the once-great. A Greek tragedy.

With all that said, fixing governance in Hong Kong requires a paradigm shift. The paradigm shift is multi-dimensional, and I could only make stabs at outlining, tentatively, what these dimensions constitute. Transforming and applying these principles to reality is no mean task – and indeed one that may take years, if not decades; though Hong Kong probably can ill-afford to wait any longer.

Firstly, it is high time to recognise that governance is not only about upholding what bureaucrats take to be the people’s interests – but also about communicating to the people that the government cares. Subjective, perceptual, optical… are just as important as the objective, actual, and substantive. We’ve seen this in Brexit – where, despite the objective gains and leaps made in impoverished regions in Britain, the vast majority of the population in such areas (e.g. Wales, the North of England) opted nevertheless for the whimsical notion of ‘freedom’, for exit from arguably the most important and enriching multilateral institution of which the country has ever been a part. For a closer-to-home example, look at the 2019 District Council elections, where the public – fed up with the ineptitude of the Pro-Establishment camp, and the perception that the Establishment was rigged against the people – turned to voting in protest candidates that had arguably lacked any robust track record, yet offers the people a cathartic outlet for their venting.

If Hong Kong is to repair its governance, it must grapple with the emotions, the sentiments, the unseen and murky terrains of ‘feelings’ – an alien concept, I know, to many for whom governance has hitherto been ticking checkboxes and fulfilling internal criteria of assessment. Due diligence should not purely be about stress-testing the technical feasibility and efficiency of a project, but also involve coming to grips with how the public may perceive what is being sold, presented, or advocated. Some in Tamar may choose to believe that, with the opposition gone, optics and perceptions no longer matter – it would be preposterous if this were in fact true. Dissent, disgruntlement, and vehement opposition do not die out simply because of their formal exclusion from legislative apparatus – indeed, there exist good reasons to think that the disillusionment would only foment and grow, at the expense of public interest and buy-in towards governmental policies.

Secondly, we need a recalibration of the stakeholders that matter. No – Hong Kong does not need a socialist revolution, or blindly populist policies, e.g. aimless cash handouts for the sake of placating the crowds. Nor does Hong Kong need a retrenchment of the plutocratic nepotism and irresponsible laissez-faire policies that had paved the way to one of the most expensive housing markets in the world. Land developers, business owners, shopowners, bourgeoisie – these folks obviously matter, because they are a part of Hong Kong; to blindly demonise them would be apparently futile and irresponsible from a politico-ethical point of view. Yet what of the seventy year-old street vendor who sells chestnuts at the junction of Hankow and Middle Roads? Or the single parent who has migrated from the mainland, and now lives in a ramshackled container on a rooftop in Mong Kok? Or the youth who have been embroiled in the violent clashes over the past two years – as both a part of the casualties, and a part of a movement in which their participation they have later come to regret?

It is cliched to say that governing Hong Kong requires one to serve all. And it’s almost a trivial non-starter – for who defines “all”? One could take “all” to denote all folks living in Admiralty and Central only, for that matter. Till the day we expand our conception of “all” to encompass those who do not live in the light, who do not live in the prosperous affluence, the glamour and glitz taken by the powerful to comprise their Hong Kong, there can be no emancipation or solace for the vast majority in the city. Redistributive policies are not a panacea – indeed, they could be detrimental towards socioeconomic progress and genuine mobility, if carried out or designed poorly. Yet at the very least our government must demonstrate their resolve and commitment to tackling abject poverty, homelessness, and widespread welfare deprivation, especially for those who qualify for neither welfare support nor unemployment benefits… the proverbial ‘N-nothing’ folks.

Kuhn coined the term ‘paradigm shift’ to refer to fundamental shifts in our practices and concepts as a knowledge community. Hence the final, and plausibly most important shift, constitutes an expansion in our understanding of democracy. Let’s face it – Hong Kong is not an electoral democracy; it is a partial democracy with substantial controls and restrictions. Given these constraints, it behoves us to make the most of our institutions – to ensure that where formal and electoral democracy is absent, substantive democracy could still be obtained: a form of governance that caters to the interests of the demos, that speaks to the hearts and minds of the demos, and that represents the voices of the demos, can be substantively democratic, even if procedurally flawed in the selection of leaders and governors.

Hence, in lieu of blind fixation and fetishisation over our institutional design, it is high time for opposition and government alike to consider the fundamental question – given the political reality of Hong Kong, how could we make the most of it? How can we induce genuine changes, when few changes can be organically found? These are questions that all interested in governance – including this very administration – must consider.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review