Hong Kong residents who have been traveling these past two weeks will have experienced what it is like to have the international media as your only source of information.
You would be excused for being under the impression that the city was in chaos, that the People’s Liberation Army was massed at the border and that a revolution was under way.
You would also have learned from leading experts that democracy is a panacea to all ills, and that any non-English-speaking local who looks a bit rough and opposed to street protests is a triad member.
On the bright side, you would probably have been impressed with the restraint shown by both protesters and police. Though there have been some clashes and shows of force, in the context of 200,000 people on the street, both sides have behaved nearly impeccably, especially when compared with what has happened in New York, Ferguson, London or Paris.
Needless to say, the reality is much more complicated than that. Here are just a few things the international media paid little attention to in its coverage.
The first is that, despite pockets of inconvenience, this great city has operated peacefully and efficiently. Unfortunately, this masks the fact that the government is paralysed, does not know what to do and needs our help.
Throwing brickbats from the sidelines is not productive and remaining silent is even worse. Instead, engaging the government now is our collective responsibility so that it learns how to respond to the community and that leadership requires dialogue, which is a two-way street. Impartial mediators have always played a key role in diffusing the kind of conflicts Hong Kong currently faces, and those in a position to do so should step up and contribute.
Second, though a fear of Chinese trampling of the rule of law was one of the core drivers of the current dissent, those fighting for its preservation have themselves disregarded it. Irrespective of which side of the fence you sit on, there is no denying the irony of the fact that the protesters did not give those who disagreed with them any say in what would happen when they broke the laws of our community. While some protesters may argue that their rights have been infringed by an unjust political system, two wrongs don’t make a right.
Third, most Hong Kong people are in the difficult position of perhaps not backing the government, but also having no interest in either revolution or continuing disruption. Most probably feel the need to appreciate the views of the young people who will be Hong Kong’s future, and who have become leaders at a time when the politicians whose job it is to make decisions have instead taken a back seat.
Fourth, Hong Kong’s current situation is made more difficult by our post-colonial transition following 150 years of British rule. At no point during this period were locals given democratic rights; on the contrary, for most of it they were treated like second-class citizens. Unravelling such a past is never easy, as the history of many former colonies will tell you, and is made even more complicated in this case by the fact that Hong Kong was handed back to a nation with a political system that departs from the West’s liberal tradition. (Regardless of one’s position on China, it is objectively no mean feat to have managed two such different systems simultaneously.) The events of the past few weeks are only a microcosm of these wider, longer-lasting ideological and economic issues.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, electoral politics is far from the only thing people are unhappy with or will be concerned about. At present, the reality is that Hong Kong’s economy has only two main pillars – the property sector and financial services. Most of the other elements that once existed, such as agriculture, light industry or textiles, have been hollowed out. This is not a healthy or sustainable situation. The financial sector alone cannot offer job opportunities to everyone, especially in an economy where most positions are open to global competition.
And an economy based on property speculation will inevitably result in the housing crisis Hong Kong currently faces. With property prices pushing decent accommodation out of the hands of most, and astronomical rents pushing up the prices of everything else, there is a real question of whether the next generation will be able to afford to live in the city of their birth.
Hong Kong’s frenzied pace of life makes it easy to forget the world at large and become inward looking as our city – though not everyone in it – continues to preserve and benefit from historical privileges. But the truth is that recent events in Hong Kong are best understood in light of the big picture. Like most exceptionally wealthy cities, Hong Kong has felt the sting of growing inequality, which has everywhere resulted in some taking to the streets to express their concerns and frustrations. Remember London, New York or Paris? Will Singapore be next? This is driven by a changing world in which the old privileges enjoyed by the residents of the rich world, Hong Kong included, are being eroded at both the global and local level.
A view of the big picture also shows that the issues Hong Kong must deal with to succeed in the 21st century extend far beyond its electoral system. It will need to undertake radical housing reform, build an economy that is truly diversified, equip the next generation to be competitive global citizens, deal with the immigration and population challenge, adapt to climate change and rising sea levels, stop continuing as one of the most resource-thirsty and wasteful societies on the planet and pay for all these public services with appropriate taxes and fees.
Yet even as we implement much-needed change, it is important to recognise all the important things we take for granted, which the majority of the world can still only dream of: safe streets, an unarmed populace, potable water, sanitation, affordable education, an excellent health care system, an efficient public transport system, a reliable energy supply and an effective anti-corruption culture.
There is always the danger of unintended consequences when change is sought without a broader understanding of external pressures, what makes certain societies function and how new polices will affect them. One of the big challenges for Hong Kong is dealing with its problems, neglected for too long, while maintaining what is already great about this city.
Any advanced society that banks on slogans is one that is in danger of thinking that there are always simple solutions to problems, and that change can come without the hard work of coming up with new ideas backed by analysis, building consensus, learning to compromise and making sacrifice.
We should move beyond the belief that the solutions to Hong Kong’s challenges lie in a choice between becoming more democratic or less. The big picture is not as simple as that.