The problem with Hong Kong's elite: Asia News Network columnist

Ballot boxes for the Legislative Council election are seen at the central counting station in Hong Kong on Sept 5. Hong Kong's latest election results suggest that her elites still do not quite get it.
Ballot boxes for the Legislative Council election are seen at the central counting station in Hong Kong on Sept 5. Hong Kong's latest election results suggest that her elites still do not quite get it. PHOTO: AFP

Hong Kong's latest election results suggest that her elites still do not quite get it.

For over a century, Hong Kong has been largely an economic city, where politics was kept under colonial wraps and social development was left largely to the community as long as it did not conflict with the colonial agenda.

A very wise and perceptive friend reminded me that society is like a stool founded on three legs, where one unstable leg would tip the stool over. The three legs are economic, political and social.

Economics is a necessary but not sufficient condition, because without growth and development, there are no resources to deal with providing good social services, such as education, health and security, including dealing with poverty and social inequities.

The second leg is political, which in any society is a continuous bargaining process between different components of society to arrive at how to share and allocate resources, deal with what is important in society and maintain balance and fairness.

Political bargains are always trade-offs, involving complex compromises because there are only so much resources to go around.

Notice that the idea of one person-one vote democracy is only one option on the political scale. Hong Kong is a classic example where its citizens have almost every freedom except for the last hurdle.

So why is Hong Kong politics a forum with few compromises?

One possible answer is that Hong Kong is struggling with the third leg of post-colonial debate on social identity.

Each citizen, especially the young, is trying to clarify which individual and social values - such as religion, family, culture - or what is considered sacred are part of the social contract.

Social contracts are either constitutional, written in law such as the American constitution, or unwritten, like the British constitution. Hong Kong has its own constitution called the Basic Law, but being a Special Administrative Region, it is subordinate to the Chinese constitution.

Social compacts are by their very nature fluid and ambiguous, because it is an understanding of what an individual expects from the community, while the state has also expectations of what it expects of the individual.

Hong Kong's elites, which benefitted most from the expansion of the economic cake, has always pushed for the status quo and more economic freedoms, without paying serious attention to the other two legs.

Hong Kong's messy political consequences are due largely to insufficient attention on these two issues by Hong Kong's own elites.

Modern economic theory is much better at arriving at models or policies that can maximise output, such as gross domestic product. Hong Kong could not have arrived at advanced income status without almost full devotion to profit maximisation in the short term at the cost of long-term political and social sustainability.

While it can be understood why the colonial period focused on the maximisation of economics and finance with minimal questioning of British political rule, its political and social costs is the debate that is ongoing in Hong Kong, as revealed by the recent election results.

The British colonial authorities were very clever in giving Hong Kong people almost all freedoms except the right to change the political masters. So why did not Hong Kong people seek independence from Britain and now some localists are seeking autonomy to determine their own future?

Hong Kong is learning local politics fairly quickly, as the young are experimenting with street protests and seeking electoral representation. To them, being a civil servant is no longer a path to the top position, because unless the candidate understands both local and mainland China politics, the job is almost untenable, because understanding only one is insufficient.

Furthermore, understanding the form and process of politics is not enough. As was revealed in the referendum on Brexit, when the population is asked about one issue, the electorate is actually responding on other issues. More often than not, referendum results end up with a protest vote that is not specific to one issue.

What is also being unveiled over time is what is sacred to Hong Kong values. How do the values of rule of law collide with the rules of community, such as what is happening with land rights in the New Territories where elders and secret societies play a major role?

A one party or multi-party system is a proxy system whereby individuals vote for a party to solve many of these issues of property rights or social disputes that exist in all societies. The rule of law is largely a rule of courts and the legislature. But there is no rule or law that covers all situations and so when social and political conditions change, many issues need to be solved at the political and social levels.

The problem with Hong Kong elites is that they seem to know what they do not want, but not what Hong Kong citizens really want. That is a search and learn process that changes over time.

It would not be surprising if a fully elected chief executive would very quickly find popularity declining as fast as an appointed chief executive. That would solve no problem except that the Hong Kong citizen has exercised his or her right to elect a non-performer.

Some people think that taking regular polls is a scientific way of finding out what the man in the street really wants. But there is sufficient experience to show that not only are the pollsters wrong, but also the public mood can be fickle and changing.

Even the able civil servants, vaunted academics and the transparent media have not had the creativity to put in the institutional processes to elicit social understanding and compromise in a transparent manner.

Are we surprised that all seems chaotic under heaven? All societies arrive at the social contract through more informal channels of social dialogue before the creation of formal institutions. Can Hong Kong evolve her own form of social conversation rather than adversarial politics where every issue becomes a grandstand for moral correctness?

Leadership is not about grandstanding for electioneering -- it is about beginning the process of social conversation for mutual understanding and long-term stability.

* The writer, a Distinguished Fellow of the Asia Global Institute of the University of Hong Kong, comments on global issues from an Asian perspective.