The dangerous fixation over purging all things Western

May 03, 2023 09:05
Photo: AFP

There is something conspicuously perverse about the state of domestic political discourse in Hong Kong. There is an odious, growing tendency to brand all things “Western” as evil, and to celebrate all things “Eastern” as inherently good.

To understand how this sort of Manichean worldview and reductionist rhetoric emerged, we must turn to history. There exists a widespread belief amongst certain segments of the local political scene, that equates the turmoil that Hong Kong has endured over the past decades, with the malign forces of ‘Western interference’ and ‘brainwashing by the West’.

Legitimate grievances such as housing inequalities, land shortages, deeply rooted concerns over this city’s competitiveness on the world stage, and a fundamental sense of disconnect between the youth and those in positions of power? Forget about them, these voices tout, for the ‘West’ is the bogeyman, and by far and only the sole bogeyman we ought to oppose.

I do not doubt that many amongst these folks are well-intentioned individuals. I would also note that their skepticism and resentment towards foreign forces sowing seeds of discontents - are, in many places, well-founded.

What is contentious here isn’t so much the appraisal that international geopolitics has played a steering role in derailing Hong Kong’s economic progress over the past five years, but the ensuing prescription that we should thereby rid this city of all things Western.

The dangerous streak here equates the West with de facto evil, and, perhaps more worryingly, typecasts anything of ostensibly Western origin as inimically opposed to this city’s interests. This persisting zeitgeist jumps to the premature conclusion, then, that evaluate objects, institutions, and practices based on their origins and nothing more - no consideration of their utility, function, and necessity; no acknowledgment of their historical legacy and future value.

There are two fundamental flaws at play here. The first, is the false equivalence between the West as a geopolitical actor, with ‘Western’ culture, institutions, economic practices, and beliefs. Make no mistake: the West are no saints. Consider, for one, the plethora of historical atrocities, violations of international legal protocol, and undue, egregious excesses of Western imperialism and colonialism in the past centuries. Note here, too, that such historical aberrations are also mirrored by non-Western powers who have partaken in pillaging, raids, enslavement, and mass murder of their and other citizens in securing their end objectives.

One would be delusional to see any geopolitical actor as altruistically motivated - in the past, at present, or in the future. No country is immune from the impulse to pursue their raw self-interests, potentially at the expense of others. As it stands, the US-led coalition within the West has come to define China as a purportedly existential threat, and has embraced openly means and methods centered around containing China’s rise. We should not be naïve about those in positions of influence in the West, who would like to see Hong Kong fail, as an exemplary proof of their simplistic yet convenient ‘China = bad’ narrative.

Yet recognising the questionable intents on the geopolitical level, does not justify our thereby concluding that all things Western are bad. We are no strangers to ‘Western values’ - indeed, our city is founded upon synthesising the very best of both Chinese and Western moral spheres. The common law jurisdiction, as painstakingly emphasised by President Xi Jinping himself in his July 1 speech last year, is what differentiates Hong Kong from the rest of China. It is the robustness of our legal connectivity with the world - which must be upheld against all odds - that efficaciously enshrines our status as the gateway for the world into China, and vice versa.

Even if we are to grant that there are parts of Western practices that are hostile or antithetical to Hong Kong, and China at large’s interests, this is a case for us to be selective in deciding what to keep and what to do away with; no sensible folk would advocate the view that we should blindly worship the West, and do whatever they do.

Western innovation - across finance and science - has played a pivotal role in kickstarting our transition to a knowledge economy. Hong Kong must learn to stand on its own two feet as a STEM and artificial intelligence hub, yet it could ill afford to do so whilst shutting out ideas, patented technologies, and extant research and intellectual currents, whether it be from the East or West. Similarly, we possess a large volume of homegrown talents who can and should continue to draw upon financial, legal, regulatory innovations in the West - ranging from blockchain to international mediation insights - in carving out a separate school of thought and niche that is uniquely Hong Kong-flavoured.

Given the geopolitical challenges that lie ahead of us, it is all the more vital that we draw upon what works, and jettison what doesn’t. We must learn from the errors and flaws of both the West and the East, and proactively put into practice the most sensible and pragmatic insights we can infer from their experiences.

That some Western ‘things’ are bad, does not mean that all things Western are rotten at their core. Indeed, at a speech delivered at a recent forum convened by Our Hong Kong Foundation, the newly appointed Director of the Liaison Office, Zheng Yanxiong, emphasised that “Hong Kong should maintain its characteristics of the fusion of Eastern and Western cultures […] having foreign names, to take the road internationalization.” Many of the more recalcitrant voices in our city, would benefit from heeding carefully Zheng’s words.

Retaining truly Western flavours in Hong Kong’s unique and unrivalled culture is a vital prerequisite for our ability to continually engage with counterparts in the world who are unfamiliar or reticent to be immersed entirely in the mainland Chinese context. After all, Hong Kong is a distinctive transducer of sorts, one that articulates Chinese ideals and values through language familiar to our international friends from afar. Blind, overzealous demonisation of the West not only strips us of the ability to welcome and draw in talents from all corners of the world; it also goes against Beijing’s vision for Hong Kong as a drawbridge conjoining China with an increasingly complex and multipolar world.

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Assistant Professor, HKU