(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 15 February 2017.)
Legislator Leung Kwok Hung (also known as Long Hair) declared that he would seek nominations to become a candidate in the upcoming CE elections. Four other legislators support his move: Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, Lau Siu-lai and Raymond Chan Chi-chuen. Leung has urged his political allies not to vote for any pro-establishment candidates even if they are seen as “lesser evils”, as a matter of principle.
In joining the race, Leung has reversed his political position in the previous two CE elections of “not voting, not nominating, and not running in any small-circle election.” His decision signals a condemnation of the present political arrangements and calls for an uncompromising struggle against the establishment on both political and moral grounds. He represents the political left whose deep conviction is hatred of the capitalist system.
Leung asserts that he and his allies represent the spirit of the 2014 Occupy Movement (he uses the term Umbrella Movement), the calls of Hong Kong people, and the voice of those low-income people who have always been oppressed. For him, political confrontation through mass-participation social movements is what is needed to sow dissent against the present system. The challenge is to strategically mobilize the people and persuade them to participate in repeated social movements.
As an activist of the political left, his goal is to revolt and not to govern. His politics is not reformist, but revolutionary. His real concern now that the pan-democratic coalition has over one-quarter of the votes in the Election Committee is that they now have real hopes of contesting the outcome, if not in 2017 then in 2022, and making a difference. The public (which cannot vote in the CE election) has such expectations, too.
In the previous two CE elections, the pan-democratic coalition had a smallish presence in the Election Committee. The political differences among centrists, leftists and rightists could be papered over. They could agree to disagree and remain under a single pan-democratic tent. The overwhelming dominance of the establishment made their differences within the coalition appear minimal for the purpose of the CE elections.
This, of course, did not apply to the Legislative Council elections. Here centrists, leftists, and rightists have drawn blood for years, for example, in the Five District Referendum Movement, and the 2012 and 2016 Legislative Council elections. The centrists have been losing ground to the leftists and the rightists.
Leung as a political leftist is deeply alarmed that the pan-democratic coalition is now serious about influencing the CE election by nominating and voting for establishment candidates. He most certainly fears that if the pan-democratic coalition (or at least a significant segment within it) participates in CE election politics in a substantive way, then the drive towards revolutionary politics will lose steam. Instead of being a coalition that nurtures a growing revolutionary wing, it will be more likely to lead the public towards a reformist path.
The Occupy Movement has led to the flourishing of both a younger right wing nativist movement and the much older left wing socialist movement. The less mature right wing was dealt a crushing blow by the interpretation of the Basic Law by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. Meanwhile, the older left wing has much better survival odds because of its broader and deeper roots in many segments of society.
Leung’s entry in the CE race is thus a contest for the moral (not political) leadership of the pan-democratic coalition. He is keen on preserving the visibility and vitality of the left wing movement and securing a greater role for its future.
This is a battle, then, for the hearts and minds of the new generation, whose growing political clout and democratic inclinations are being felt in the CE elections.
Will they become centrists, leftists or rightists in the future?
Can rightists be democrats? History has shown that the likes of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco are the nemesis of all things democratic.
Can leftists be democrats? I seriously doubt it. There is hardly any record of a leftist movement that has remained democratic after capturing power.
The ‘left’ deserves more than a cursory treatment because its influence has been more persistent and its promises have always been more alluring.
The term ‘left’ derives from the French Estates General of 1789, when the nobility sat on the king’s right, while the ‘third estate’ sat on his left. It covers a wide spectrum of intellectual ideas, including those of anarchists like Foucault, Marxist dogmatists like Althusser, nihilists like Žižek, and American-style liberals like Dworkin and Rorty. They all illustrate an enduring outlook on the world that is critical of market economies—or capitalism in Marx’s terminology.
Leftists believe that the goods of this world are unjustly distributed, and that the fault lies not in human nature but in usurpations practiced by a dominant class. They define themselves in opposition to established power. They are the champions of a new order that will rectify the ancient grievance of the oppressed.
The leftists justify their aims with two key ideas: ‘social justice’ and liberation.
The goal of ‘social justice’ is no longer equality before the law, or the equal claim to the rights of citizenship. Nor is there widespread appeal for the more radical egalitarianism of nineteenth century Marxists and anarchists, who sought to abolish private property. Rather, there is now a call for ‘respect as an equal’, as opposed to ‘equal respect’.
Social justice is not the justice of voluntary individual dealings but the ‘justice’ imposed by a plan, which invariably deprives individuals of things that they have acquired by fair dealings in the market. The leftist goal is thus a comprehensive rearrangement of society, so that privileges, hierarchies, even the unequal distribution of goods and opportunities, are either overcome or challenged. This includes whatever else we might wish for ourselves and our children – these things are deemed unjust until proven otherwise.
Social justice is a theory that amplifies and legitimizes resentment. But that is the wrong way to look at things. Resentment is not a good feeling, either for its subject or its object. Society and our social lives should be conducted so that resentment does not occur.
Resentment is to a community what pain is to the body: it is bad to feel it, but good to be capable of feeling it, since without the ability to feel it we will never fix it.
Hence we should not resent the fact that we resent, but accept it, as a part of the human condition, something to be managed along with all our other joys and pains. However, if resentment is transformed into a governing emotion and a social cause, it loses the specificity of its target and becomes directed to society as a whole. That is what happens when left wing movements take over.
Resentment ceases to be a response to another’s unmerited success and becomes instead an existential posture of the one whom the world has betrayed. Such a person does not seek to negotiate within existing structures, but to gain total power so as to abolish the system itself.
He will set himself against all forms of mediation, compromise and debate, and against the legal and moral norms that give a voice to the dissenter and sovereignty to the ordinary citizen. He will set about destroying the enemy, whom he will conceive in collective terms as the establishment that hitherto controlled the world and which must now in turn be controlled. And all institutions and groups, including former coalition members that grant protection or a voice to the establishment in the political process, will be targets for his destructive rage.
Such a posture is the core of a serious social disorder. It is an oppositional voice, a cry against the actual on behalf of the unknowable.
What does the left promise as the alternative?
Mostly negatives! Occasional lip service is paid to a future state of ‘emancipation’, ‘equality’, or ‘social justice’. But those terms seldom go beyond the realm of abstractions, or receive serious examination.
In a moment of doubt about the socialist record, Sir Eric Hobsbawm, famous English Marxist historian, once wrote: ‘If the left have to think more seriously about the new society, that does not make it any the less desirable or necessary or the case against the present one any less compelling’. There, in a nutshell, is the sum of the left’s commitment. We know nothing of the socialist future, save only that it is both necessary and desirable. Our concern is with the ‘compelling’ case against the present, which leads us to destroy what we lack knowledge to replace.
A case closer to home was the refusal of the pan-democrats to stake out any concrete position on reforming the political arrangements for electing the Chief Executive in 2017 through universal suffrage, beyond a populist hand-waving abstraction called direct public nominations. The leftists successfully hijacked the entire pan-democratic coalition on that occasion. And that is why today Hong Kong still has to struggle with the CE Election Committee.
The people of Hong Kong have certainly been disappointed by the turn of events in the past three years. They wish to end the division and rebuild a more workable partnership between different sectors of society. Any hope for improvement must begin with amending the tense relation between the executive and legislative branches of government in the future.
This has to be premised on a shared interest in improving governance. It should not be premised on promoting political gridlock so as to demonstrate that the political system is unjust and immoral, nor on elimination of the enemy. A more unified pan-democratic coalition that is not hijacked by leftist tendencies will pave the way for those genuinely interested in reforming the present political arrangements to lower the barriers to political participation and make universal suffrage a realistic hope in our time.
Lord Acton famously said: ‘At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has sometimes been disastrous’.
Will the new voices on the Election Committee choose wisely?