Actions speak louder than words

April 14, 2023 10:19
U.S. President Joe Biden (Photo: Reuters)

As a general rule of thumb, policies that deliver for the people, are much better than promises of policies that claim to deliver. The Inflation Reduction Act introduced by Biden’s White House, for all its flaws, managed to deliver upon two core objectives - first, through pulling substantial investments away from Europe and the UK, it managed to revitalise in part the domestic manufacturing scene in the country, thereby creating jobs for a select segment of the labour market; not everyone stood to gain - but there’s at least some progress. Second, in advancing clear subsidies for ‘nascent industries’ of strategic importance, Biden managed to force the American economy to undergo a radical ‘green-ification’ process, e.g. transitioning towards genuine progress on front of alternatives to non-renewable energy.

All in all, Biden managed to deliver on the domestic front, far more than he did on the international stage. For one, Blinken’s promise of ensuring that the Sino-American relationship featured in reasonable proportions “cooperation, competition, and confrontation” emerged to be little more than vacuous empty talk: there is a lot of confrontation - especially in rhetorical hot-air form; very little cooperation, and vigorous, unhealthily vicious competition has increasingly come to dominate the zeitgeist when it comes to the two sides of the Pacific.

Actions speak louder than words. If the White House is serious about de-escalate Sino-American relations, it has a plenty of options to draw upon, including engaging constructively with Chinese interlocutors to set bona fide stop-gaps and guardrails to areas of contention, identifying and promoting more proactively spheres of cooperation and interest alignment, and - ultimately - dialling down by several notches the heat embedded within its statements. Beijing and Washington alike can be the adult in the room. Alas, the four to five months subsequent to the Xi-Biden summit have only seen precipitous deterioration of bilateral relations - with the downward trajectory set to continue unless either of the parties of interest steps in to put an end to the continuous spiral.

When it comes to domestic politics elsewhere - beyond the Sino-US relationship, there are many who may disagree with the above maxim. After all, those who toot their own horns, or who tout slogans with ostentatious ferocity, or who sprout vocal rhetoric in “exemplifying” their purity of intentions or “showcasing” their devotion to a particular country, may well find themselves benefiting through their aggressive publicity campaigns. Politicians often resort to such measures for they are by far the most visibility-garnering means of acquiring political capital. It is much easier to demonstrate purported fealty and competence by shouting loudly, than getting things done. Planning meticulously for projects to be implemented, only for them to be derailed by arbitrary intervening events, is no fun. Seeing things through from beginning to finish is even harder. On the other hand, attacking hapless and helpless vulnerable groups, digging up dirt to weaponise against one’s opponents, and basking in the halo of ideological purity, are much better means of climbing up the ladder.

Yet those who challenge me through citing such examples, neglect the fact that for the people who truly matter, actions indeed speak louder than words. And here I’m not talking about the power elite, the privileged, or those who enjoy being worshipped at the expense of the truth. I’m talking instead about those who are struggling to make ends meet, who are keenly awaiting structural reforms and olive branches from the powers that be, and who have repeatedly been neglected in this odious game of thrones. I’m talking about the poor, the disabled, the discriminated-against and excluded, who have all been swept under the carpet in order to make for political showmanship and performance.

Words cannot solve problems. Actions are the only remedies. Politicians owe it to their authorising citizens - not necessarily voters, given that voting is not always a readily available tool of recourse or accountability in many jurisdiction - to serve them with sincerity and capability. Politicians also owe it to the public to not govern by merely words alone. The British population deserved better than a prime minister who was bent on destroying the country’s finances by adopting laissez-faire economics - again, at the expense of the sound albeit boring technocratic middle that Rishi Sunak has managed to restore (thankfully).

And even on the subject of words, we must bear in mind that some words are indeed better than others. Public relations can vary in quality - some are of a higher quality than others. Words that are understandable, easy to relate to and empathise with, and that reflect some level of reality, are fundamentally preferable to words that are arcane, alienating, and fundamentally detached from reality. Vacuous, obtuse, long sentences filled with little more than profligate rhetoric, do not make for compelling reading. In contrast, words that humanise, that craft and tell human stories, tend to fare much better when it comes to political communications. So not all words are equal. Some are more equal than others.

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Assistant Professor, HKU