What can individuals do in the age of geopolitics?

February 05, 2024 23:06

I was invited to address a TEDx a couple of weeks ago, here in Hong Kong.

After five to six days of back-and-forth deliberation, I settled upon a topic that I thought would be germane, not just for the young audience in attendance, but also for the general public at large. I set myself the challenge of answering the following question – in an age when geopolitical conflict and civil strife have become all the more ubiquitous, what exactly, if anything, can individuals do? Is there room for hope, change, and, above all, agency as anchored and vested in the individual?

A terrifying question to tackle in 10 minutes – it wasn’t the length, but the shortness, that was the source of much angst. How could I possibly do justice with but a sixth of an hour, to this topic that merits months, if not years, of study? And thus I opted for a relatively straightforward, anodyne opening. I recounter the fact that 2019 was the year when I lost many friends, made a couple of friends, and came to appreciate the reality, the truth, that geopolitical struggles are everywhere. Indeed, Hong Kong that year was embroiled in a proxy conflict, a conflict between two behemothic powers with extremely divergent views over a basket of topics, including this city’s trajectory. What of the agency of Hong Kong citizens? Where stood commonsense at times prevailed over by the winds of irrationality, undercurrents of zealots, and instigation with no heed paid to consequences?

It's not hard to wrap our heads around the view, “The world is in a difficult place right now.” A vast majority of those in the auditorium that evening nodded mildly glumly to the thought that Planet Earth is in crisis. From raging wars in Gaza, Myanmar Yemen, and Ukraine, through to the rise of totalitarianism and crises in democracies; from climate change to pandemics – and the ensuing politicisation, the rancorous bickering we have seen on the world stage… from Donald Trump to Brexit, from the Venezuelan-Guyanan crisis through to the rise of hyper-masculine strong-man politics… the world is experiencing a tight squeeze, and it does almost feel that the walls are closing in on us faster than we can escape or react.

Yet I offered a counter-example, which – thankfully – piqued the interest and optimism of those present. In 1971, at the 31st World Table Tennis Championship, 18-year-old American team member Glenn Cowan boarded a shuttle that had in fact been carrying the Chinese team. 30-year-old Chinese player Zhuang Zedong shook Cowan’s hand, presented him with a portrait of Huangshan, whilst Cowan reciprocated with a T-shirt and “Let It Be”. When asked, Cowan somewhat insouciantly said, he’d love to go to China. Whilst initially displeased, Chairman Mao later came to the view that Zhuang Zedong was in fact a “political talent”. Many backroom and top-secret conversations later, in 1972, President Richard Nixon visited China. That visit changed China, changed the US, and, of course, fundamentally altered the course of world history. Humanisation breaks the ice. Humanisation also makes the impossible possible.

There is more. If individuals are truly to possess and exercise their agency, they must parse information with meticulous care and scrutiny. Only a handful of the audience present would consume news from more than three sources (social media platforms included). Even fewer would read news from more than one language. To this, I remarked that there was a serious crisis – a crisis of echo chambers, of our subscribing to pre-existing views and interpreting information and the news through confirmation bias. I encouraged the audience to read everything – read news by outlets with which you disagree, just to see the “other side”; read news about countries and regions you have never heard of before, in order to broaden your worldview; even read propaganda, to understand the subtext and rationale going into it, as well as the political calculations and intentional deliberation that went into each and every phrase of said propaganda. Propaganda can make for awesome bedtime reading, but it can also make for incredibly useful reading in lieu of reading tea leaves, if you know where and how to look. Talk to those who hold radically differing opinions from yourself – and learn from their refutations and challenges. Never grow complacent.

Having established a broadly decent source(s) of information, the next step becomes, how should we act? “How many of you here are good at something?” I asked. Three quarters of the room raised their hands. “How many of you are extremely good at said something?” I wonder – as I later came to find out, probably less than 10% (from a very inaccurate straw poll of the room). We live in an era that encourages us to develop broad, wide-ranging interests, and capabilities that are commensurate with the level of a skillful generalist. There is nothing wrong with that – few could be polymaths, like Leonardo da Vinci. Yet in an era of automation, digitalisation, and information explosion, I also believe there is a case to be made for specialisation: specialising in something to the degree that would render one an expert, whilst concurrently finding ways to disseminate the knowledge – which requires generalist skills.

To weather the potential ramifications brought about by geopolitics for the everyday man, but also to build bridges across cleavages and constructed divides, what is fundamentally needed here is a deft balance and integration of knowledge generalism and skill-based specialisation. Each and every individual should possess skills that cannot be easily acquired or replicated elsewhere, yet also sufficient knowledge about the world as to know the pitfalls and traps that are waiting to ensnare you. Climate change, public health, artificial intelligence, these are all areas in which international cooperation and engagement are sorely needed, irrespective of what politicians and ultra-nationalistic goons may say. This is precisely why the future rests with those who can straddle specialisation and general competence with ease.

Last but not least, I ended my speech by talking about the concept of the Home. The Home is not necessarily a place. Nor is it necessarily a group of people. It is instead a mindset, a relationship that informs and moves you. In an age of global displacement, instability, and restlessness, it is all the more important that we remember our roots, and remember from whence we come. Individuals must not forget their missions; indeed, they must commit to finding, harnessing, and preserving their life purpose – the inner flame that guides them, towards the eventual light. There is much that we can do.

Assistant Professor, HKU