On loyal garbage and virtuous patriots

March 16, 2021 10:58
Photo: Bloomberg

A recent comment from an established mainland Chinese academic caught my eye – in it, he decried the lack of virtuous patriots in Hong Kong, and lamented the fact that this city was filled to the brim with pro-establishment politicians that had performed their duties as ‘loyal garbage’ in the decades subsequent to the handover.

It is tempting – almost too tempting – to dismiss his comments as merely words signifying Beijing’s fundamental frustrations at the local establishment; that the Central Administration had been thrown under the bus by the ineptitude of the domestic ruling elite – is a plausible and reasonable interpretation of events, especially in light of the massive headache posed by Hong Kong to Beijing’s regional and geopolitical plans. Yet such an interpretation would unduly conceal an admittedly pressing and glaring issue – a sore thumb that sticks out amidst the dredge the city is wading through: there are serious problems with our governance.

I shall not relitigate the obvious, which has had much ink spilled over – I won’t bore you with a rehashing of all the issues endemic or extrinsic to our governance system. Instead, I’d like us to reflect upon this with the questions: how did we get here? How can we get out of here?

Many in the Establishment have faulted the civil service for its political inertia, mal-adaptiveness to politics, and a fundamental inability to plan ahead. The pot certainly enjoys calling the kettle black – albeit to farcical effect. The Establishment is riddled with equal volumes, if not more, of such problems, whether it be its notable inertia during the 2019-20 protests (with little beyond platitudes and staunch condemnation offered as the default response); its mal-adaptiveness to an age of politics where communications with the public must go both ways, and when legislators must and ought to engage with the language of the ‘other side’, and, above all, its inability to develop a vaguely coherent vision or roadmap for the city. If the civil service is to draw flack for their ostensible intransigence, then the pro-establishment camp should engage in some much-needed introspection and self-flagellation, so as to search for its palpably absent soul. It takes two to tango – if it were not for the deferential, muted political judgment on the part of the establishment, there would at least be some impetus on the part of the civil service to engage in productive policymaking and reform.

A more fundamental issue, perhaps, is that the pro-establishment camp is undergirded by a hugely problematic incentives system. Individuals are rewarded on the basis of their ability to perform loyalty; by that, I do not mean “perform well, in order to signal loyalty” – but “perform very well in performatively claiming loyalty”. It is an indelible truth: it is practically easier, speedier, and more expedient if one were to loudly proclaim one’s loyalty, than to toll away industriously in actually serving one’s community. The former takes lip service; the latter takes meticulous planning and a defiant, if not irrationally unbridled, openness to risk-taking. Decisions involving personnel selection and promotion are made on the basis of perceived loyalty, for loyalty connotes risk-free-ness, which in turn connotes the minimisation of liability in association with the particular character. If the Establishment genuinely seeks useful and productive “patriots” as opposed to “loyal garbage”, they should start with revamping their HR policies and KPI – recruit folks who are talented, skilled, and qualified; let them take over the reins of the respective parties, and design qualifying criteria that promote skilled governance, as opposed to empty gestures and rhetoric. It ain’t easy, but something’s got to give.

Finally, it is tempting to classify politicians in a dichotomous manner – that certain x, y, z are “loyal garbage”, whereas a, b, c are not. Yet such bifurcation is both lazy and disingenuous. Politicians aren’t born “garbage”, just as they aren’t born “loyal”. It is imperative, however, that role models that exhibit genuine skill and competence are rewarded duly – humans respond to incentives, and incentive response ultimately boils down to the expected value of options. If it is indeed the case that hard work goes unnoticed; that thinking two steps ahead leads to one’s career taking three steps backwards; that adulating words are celebrated over problem management and conflict resolution, then, surely, there can be no incentive for ‘patriots’ to move beyond melodramatic patriotism, in favour of genuine governing merit. We can nudge individuals towards and away mindless sycophancy, just as we can groom not-so-talented individuals into becoming fully fledged political talents. This nevertheless takes time – and takes opportunities: opportunities for growth, learning, and, fundamentally, applied practice.

This city indeed can ill-afford to have more loyal garbage. Yet the cultivation of virtuous patriots remains an open question – and a question that all invested in the city’s success, including those in the Central Administration, must take seriously. A plausible start would be with professionalising politics in the city – not making it a profession per se, but ensuring that those who undertake political careers are also highly successful or respectable figures in their own fields. Only then, perhaps, can we see a transition away from loyalty-first politics, towards a governance-driven ethos in government.

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Assistant Professor, HKU