(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 19 February 2014)


In 1980 Hans O. Staub wrote about Europe’s minorities-dominated political landscape and the difficulty of reaching consensus. His words have a familiar ring for anyone who has been observing Hong Kong’s political scene in the past decade.


Differences of opinion are integral and beneficial to any democratic process: the dynamics of wholesome discussion and debate on matters major and minor can lead to principled, practicable decisions. When a fractious few, however, eschew genuine deliberation and refuse to consider any options other than their death-grip-held, hidebound perspectives, the outcome is both paralyzing and poisonous.


It seems that an essential aspect of good governance is compromise – an obligatory component of any successful, healthy relationship, personal, communal, or political. Alas, compromise appears to have become a lost option in society today, at least in politics.


Hong Kong’s democratic political development is feeling its way towards a workable arrangement. Staub’s Europe already has democratic political systems, but it has evolved into a deviant form of the democratic ideal. Hong Kong seems to have become inflicted with this deviant form even before democracy is in place.


Corruption of Democracy


As Staub says: “Democracy is, by definition, government of the majority. It is the protection of the minority (and its rights) by the majority, the control of the state (and its administration, its jurisdiction) by the majority – or by the ‘people’…. Today, as our century approaches its end, such definitions have a ring of mockery. It is not the majority that governs. Instead, minorities of all kinds have become the decision-makers. They dominate, tyrannize or terrorize the majority….”


Staub’s characterization of Europe raises the specter of what I fear is happening in today’s Hong Kong. Allow me to quote from his work at length with some selective editing:


 “Minorities have become vehement in their protests. Their messages are difficult to comprehend. They appear to be a conglomerate of ‘mini-minorities’ held together by a tenuous bond of dubious fighting slogans.”


 “Some minorities are openly idealistic, but their ranks include ‘sectarians by temperament’ – men and women who ‘turn half-truths into absolutes’. There are also political tacticians among them, whose aim appears to be to undermine all governmental authority and in so doing destroy the credibility of democracy.” 


 “The key word is ‘pushy’; all minorities speak frenziedly and generally are zealous in their behind-the-scenes agitation. Because they are so ‘committed’ and so obviously an active part of society, a great deal of attention is directed toward them; indeed, they are often given an undue amount of consideration. Because these minorities are elusive, because they do not fit into the scheme of the traditional political and economic structures of their societies, and because their members often belong to or are sympathetic to several quite dissimilar groups, their power to influence decisions or to sabotage them is considerable. In some nations, they serve to make an unstable political structure seem even more precarious.”


Helplessness and Social Division


 “Flight into the minority (or the minorities) has become the hallmark of our decade. In seeking to cope with the problems that he knows he must resolve, the individual worries that he has lost his overview of things. Commonplace phrases such as ‘I no longer understand the world’ or ‘What is going to happen?’ are not simply inconsequential comments for bridging gaps in a conversation; rather, they express a real fear of inadequacy, of not being able to cope with the present or the future or to make the transition between them.”


 “They are expressions of genuine concern about being confronted by a host of problems whose interrelatedness is no longer perceptible. This only exacerbates the mistrust of a world in which many suspect decisions are made apart from the people, in remote, inaccessible, uncontrolled and anonymous places.”


 “Cause and effect intermingle here. Minorities grow stronger and more numerous because individuals feel insecure; the individual feels insecure because minorities cloud the horizon. For an individual, flight into a minority is often a move into the surveyable, into a small community that concerns itself exclusively with a small number of clearly defined vital questions. Such groups seek to cope with individual symptoms; in that way they protect themselves from the excessive complexity of a world whose connections they do not know or do not want to know. In most cases the committed individual today is locked up in the ivory tower of a specific cause.”


 “Thus the age of the minorities has also become the age of intolerance. Though society in general has become more liberal, there is a growing disinclination to respect the viewpoint of the ‘other side’ in political, social, and economic discourse; in fact, one sees an increasing unwillingness to even let the other side speak. The oft-quoted statement attributed to Voltaire, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ has limited validity today. It is as if society has become obsessed by the fear that in a truly open discussion one will lose the sense of the problem and be forced to recognize connections that raise problems he is not capable of resolving.”


 “Fear of the future does not rest primarily on a material concern, though many young people are increasingly worried about their vocational prospects. Those who feel disgust at the meritocracy of their fathers say that they have no desire to climb the ‘career ladder’. Their concern is with the ‘quality of life’, with a daily routine that seems to lead mostly to boredom. It is this disenchantment that makes them ready to leave well-trodden paths, to break away and join minority groups of every kind. Environmentalism, religious and political sects, and the like are simply shorthand expressions for a search for new guidelines.”


 “It is important to try to understand the deeper reasons for the prevailing insecurity in modern society, for its inability to recognize and master connections, for its tendency to retreat to the small and the surveyable. We must begin by acknowledging that ideals and doctrines have turned out to be evanescent, and that, in political and social life, the achievements of the last century have a limited interest and utility.”


Demise of Leadership and Loss of Convincing Political Narrative


In Staub’s view at least two necessary conditions must be present in society if political life is to avoid fragmentation into divisive minority groups. First, there has to be a shared political narrative held closely by most if not all individuals and minority groups, so that society finds a common purpose for its vitality. Historically, in the pre-industrial era, religion performed this role of integrating large and diverse communities. Political ideology – liberalism, socialism, communism, and nationalism – as a kind of religion substitute assumed this role in the industrial era. Without this common narrative, the larger purpose of a shared existence becomes incomprehensible.


Second, political leadership that inspires both confidence and purpose is required to provide the necessary assurance for individuals not to withdraw into the surveyable safety of a minority group.


For Staub, “religion no longer meets the demands of the modern age. Many priests, pastors and ministers cannot decide whether they are in fact social workers or preachers and cannot serve as guides any more for society.”


Political ideology, as a kind of substitute religion, is equally devoid of meaning for contemporary society. Staub recognizes that attempts to anchor a modern narrative in one of the universal ideologies of socialism, communism or liberalism were unsuccessful in the 20th century. Nationalism defeated them, but often degenerated into either fascism or some form of tribalism.


Social democracy, the great 20th century compromise between pragmatic socialism and enlightened liberalism, is getting too sick and tired to inspire the younger generation. It cannot possibly serve as an inspiring new ideology.


Staub writes: “The lack of inspiring political ideologies universally accepted by the masses is paralleled by a palpable decline in political leadership. Politicians who attract a large number of adherents for a time are generally representatives of special interests or pragmatists, individuals who master politics on a day-to-day basis and are accepted for that reason only. Governing has become an uncharismatic, low-morale profession. The people appear to have lost confidence in their political leaders.”


 “The political parties that take turns in holding political power in democratic Europe are best seen as ‘communities of interest’ rather than bearers of ideas; they are conglomerates in which minorities of every kind are joined together. But such a system of democratic representation is credible for only a small part of the electorate. In these ‘communities of interest’, the majority is unrepresented.”


 “To the majority, the major decisions appear to be made outside of the democratic political process and behind the scenes. Pressure groups of all kinds have become highly powerful lobbies. And minority groups merely join together in ever-changing, intricate coalitions. This is where the obscure, anonymous forces are thought to be at work, giving validity to the argument that ordinary individuals are in effect disenfranchised.”


 “Many existing political institutions and structures leave the individual feeling confused and helpless, because not one of them has turned out to be wholly practicable or worthy of continuing confidence. None of these systems frees the individual from the fear of being dominated by anonymous, unsurveyable forces.”


Rise of Tyranny of Minorities


Staub concludes: “Such sentiment leads many to withdraw into surveyable communities where they can turn to concrete and specific problems that they can better understand. There is an incentive for flight into a minority – specifically, small groups that focus on particular interests. Such minorities are seeking to take the fate of their immediate concerns into their own hands, but hoping in the process to influence and possibly control the policies of the country as a whole. Some have imposed their will against the interests of the ‘majority’, solely by dint of their stubborn, persistent concentration on a single cause. They can thus see the fruits of their political labors.”


 “The contradiction seems complete: in a democracy, an individual ought to feel secure, knowing that he is being treated as a mature citizen; the will of the majority ought to be respected, and the tyranny of the minorities ought to be least perceptible. Experience has shown, however, that active, influential, and demagogic minorities are able to play a dominant role and exert a decisive influence on the sound instincts of the people. This occurs, in part, because the average voter is more receptive to ‘simple’ arguments than to complicated and differentiated explanations. Then, also, the average citizen generally feels certain guilt about the disadvantaged, and this makes him susceptible to the arguments of minorities. Also, a free press gives the active minority frequent opportunities to mobilize its adherents. The indifferent, resigned, or tired ‘majority’ generally stays at home and switches off.”


 “The smaller the minorities, the more narrowly defined their aims, the more power-hungry they become. The general danger here is that political and social life will disintegrate into anarchy; that small groups will terrorize a helpless majority; that emotional opinions will overwhelm reason; that intolerance will dominate and liberal forbearance disappear; that social, cultural, and political life will slip out of the orderly control of individuals and of the community; and that democracy will turn undemocratic precisely because it will be uncontrollable and uncontrolled. Tyranny of the minorities!”


Let me emphasize that Staub was discussing Europe’s political landscape. One can take comfort that Staub was writing in 1980. In the 30 years and more that have passed, a lot has happened in Europe and in the world. Europe is not in the best of shape, but it has not descended into social and political anarchy. There have even been prolonged periods of growth and prosperity, but the two conditions of political narrative and political leadership that Staub emphasized as causes of the rise of the “tyranny of minorities” are still present in Europe. They seem also to be appearing on Hong Kong’s political horizons.


One Country Two Systems at the Cross Roads


“One country, two systems” is the formal framework that defines Hong Kong’s political existence from 1997 to 2047, but does this concept inspire the people here? Before the restoration of sovereignty, the key purpose of this framework was to provide assurance that the prevailing way of life in Hong Kong would continue for at least another 50 years. This has been attained with resounding success so far.


But does it contain a political narrative for Hong Kong’s future evolution now that sovereignty has been restored? Under British colonial rule, Hong Kong society accepted a political narrative best described as “borrowed time, borrowed place”. This summarized, in shorthand, the hopes and restrictions of political life in Hong Kong. It circumscribed our aspirations for a larger collective purpose, relegating our energies to the pursuit of individual and where possible community interests in apolitical ways. The sum total of the collective interest of society was by and large the sum of all the parts – our individual and family interests.


With this narrative, Hong Kong accomplished a great deal. Individual efforts created a vibrant community, an upwardly mobile society, the freest economy in the world, and a list of civil liberties that other nations envied, but the city did not have political freedom. So what is to be made of the political narrative of “one country, two systems”? Is it also “borrowed time”, “borrowed place”, or both for another 50 years? Or is it to be something else?


Political Narrative to Convince and Unite


One narrative to emerge is that of a mutually beneficial pragmatic economic partnership with the Mainland. But what if it is not always mutually beneficial for either the Hong Kong side or the Mainland side? What if some in Hong Kong are perceived (perhaps mistakenly) to be benefitting a lot more than others in the community, or even at their expense? Does it not create dissent against the pragmatic economic partnership? Examples are easy to find: pregnant Mainland mothers giving birth in Hong Kong or Mainland parents purchasing formula milk powder in Hong Kong.


An economic narrative fails to address the issue of “one country” almost entirely. What, for example, does the concept of “one country” mean today for Hong Kong? What does “the motherland” mean for a young boy or girl in Hong Kong? A youngster in Shenzhen can dream of becoming president or premier of China some day. Can young people in Hong Kong have such a dream? And for a Mainlander migrating to Hong Kong, does it mean he or she will have to forsake such a dream? In what manner does a permanent resident from Hong Kong participate in the political life of his or her motherland? These are very difficult questions to answer, but failing to articulate them means we really have no political narrative.


Socially, more than 40% of the marriages in Hong Kong each year, for at least the past 20 years, have been cross-border marriages. Social integration between Hong Kong and the Mainland is occurring rapidly as a matter of voluntary choice by individuals on both sides of the border. This does not require “one country, two systems” in order to happen. But surely such momentous change implies a political narrative is over-due.


“One country, two systems” seeks to reassure the Hong Kong community that life before and after 1997 will not be discontinuous. But what will it be? Surely society will not be frozen in its tracks, so a new narrative is required. Failing this, the only noises we will hear are those of the many minorities. For a while, the push for democratic progress appeared to be more than just a minority-driven effort, but it, too, is disappearing into the background clamor. Without a new, more inspiring political narrative of “one country, two systems”, it will be difficult to galvanize the Hong Kong community.




Hans O. Staub and Harry Zohn, “The Tyranny of Minorities”, Daedalus – The End of Consensus? Vol. 109, No. 3, 1980


Tenth essay in the series on Rekindling Hong Kong’s Magic

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