(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 4 March 2015.)
It is Chinese New Year again. At this time of the year, my thoughts turn to the tumultuous political events of the past five months that have engulfed Hong Kong. It has been a difficult time.
I have tried to comprehend the convulsions that have taken place on our streets, to look for some rational explanation for the actions of our young and restless, and also of their adversaries, to find some logic and meaning in what has happened, and to understand the intellectual forces that have taken hold of the hearts of our young protestors and their critics and opponents.
In the fall of 2014, a confluence of factors converged to create the Occupy Movement. Many commentators and analysts had warned in the preceding years of social, economic, and political divisions in Hong Kong society.
Most of these rational social narratives traced the problems to three issues: the housing problem, the growing wealth disparity, and the aspiration for democracy.
Yet these narratives alone cannot explain why the protests lasted for seventy-nine days and why, even though there was little display of bloodshed and violence beyond the initial tear gas and a few isolated skirmishes, the movement could polarize the community to such a degree.
The saga that unfolded on the streets was subject to so many complex forces operating on both sides of the confrontation that a rational solution simply could not prevail. Some did not want the protests to stop. These irrational, extreme elements compelled the Occupy Movement to drag on.
Hong Kong’s deep social and economic contradictions are not life and death struggles between social groups and classes. They are not impossible or even difficult to resolve in a rational manner.
Protests and demonstrations in Hong Kong typically are highly civilized acts for voicing discontent, and are known for being peaceful, rational, and non-violent.
The annual July 1 protest marches are more like a carnival where every imaginable voice of discontent is on full display. The protestors and demonstrators have tended to disband peacefully upon reaching their destination, at least until very recently. This has been to the dismay of some radical politicians, one of whom recently went on radio and accused his moderate fellow legislators of not being serious during the protest marches – they had discussed arrangements for watching British soccer games afterwards.
The Occupy Movement was a different cup of tea because it was unreasonably protracted. To make sense of what happened, we have to view the events through the eyes of the young protestors on the ground, to feel their sense of exhilaration and liberation in being part of their own movement. Only then will we be able to see why they chose to ignore the fears and concerns of their critics and opponents, who were shocked by the madness, irresponsibility and irrationality of a movement that displayed no concern at all for rules of society that have been devised for the benefit of all. These critics, including many who were as disappointed and frustrated as the students at the slow progress of democracy, saw the young protestors as standing for the exact opposite of everything they believed in and valued.
Although the Occupy Movement is first and foremost a political movement, its intellectual roots are spiritual. Those who have spoken to the young people on the streets talk about their sense of being part of a community of their own creation. They had found a form of expression and cultivated a notion of belonging for the first time. They were eager to show and tell others what they had built together and were trying to achieve. Their knowledge is not deep, especially of history, including Chinese and even Hong Kong history. Yet they were earnestly hopeful of securing a better future of their own making.
There have been many times in history when members of a movement think they are attaining spiritual fulfillment, liberation, purity, as they grasp their destiny in their own hands. In rebelling against the values of the rational order of the external world, of their parents’ generation, and of those in power and authority, they find expression and a sense of collective belonging. College students across America had their moment during the anti-Vietnam War movement when they rejected their parents’ values [recall the film The Graduate] and the establishment’s narrative of containing communism in Southeast Asia.
The intellectual roots of rebellion against the rational order came from German Romantic thought during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. During this period German thinkers rejected the prevailing orthodoxy – the rationalism of the Enlightenment, which contended that through reason, one could learn truth, overcome ignorance, resolve conflicts, and be confident that there was order in the world. German Romanticism rejected all this. Truths became relative and were no longer absolute, ideas were irreconcilable and locked in eternal conflict and confrontation, and reason did not offer hope.
The attacks on rationalism came from several quarters. Johann Georg Hamann (1730-88) insisted that the world created by God could be understood only as poetry, and not as science and mathematics. Hamann’s doctrine is a kind of mysticism, where God speaks to us through nature. He revived the importance of myths and the centrality of subjectivism in human thought.
Hamann’s student Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) put forth three ideas. First was the notion that art was an expression of the artist. Whether a piece of art was beautiful could not be objectively assessed, an idea that ran counter to rationalist Enlightenment though. Art had to be appreciated from the perspective of the artist as creator. This idea of art as creation and artist as creator was rooted in the Romantic period.
Herder’s second idea was that every man seeks to belong to some kind of group, and if taken out of it will feel alien and not at home. His emphasis on a collective purpose was entirely opposite to the Enlightenment’s idea of the cosmopolitan man (Herder’s idea is also foreign to ancient Chinese thinking of “throughout the four seas all men are brothers” or the Christian idea of a “community of brothers and sisters in Christ.”) The 19th and 20th century ideologies of nationalism, fascism, and nativism that divided people into antagonistic camps sprung from Herder’s notion of belonging.
Finally, Herder gave us the notion that culture is specific to time and place. What is acceptable in one culture may be unacceptable in another. Different ideals can therefore be incompatible with one another and cannot be reconciled. This is in direct conflict with the Enlightenment idea that truth is absolute and can be discovered by rational means. The existence of irreconcilable relative truths were now admitted. Since relative truths are not truths, right and wrong and good and evil become indistinguishable.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) delivered another vital blow against Enlightenment rationalism, even though it was the exact opposite of his intention. Kant believed that what distinguished man was the ability to freely choose and exert his will. The unfettered will enables people to choose either good or evil, right or wrong. There is no merit in choosing what is right unless it is possible to choose what is wrong. So by choosing wrongly, he also affirms he is human! The concept of the unfettered will was destined to have exceedingly revolutionary and subversive consequences that Kant did not foresee.
Friedrich Schiller (1749-1805) the playwright offered the new notion that tragedy is not suffering or misfortune, but resistance to oppression. A tragic figure is one who resists and defies, and will finally be overwhelmed. Those who grapple against forces greater than themselves are admirable. Even the ridiculous can be admirable.
Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) argued that our lives do not depend on knowing passively what is, but of knowing actively what to do. To be free is to be unobstructed in the full exercise of one’s enormous creative drive as directed by one’s will. The thing that makes life worthwhile is the incessant pushing forward, for otherwise one is as good as dead. What mattered to Fichte was that people dedicate themselves to these values with all that is in them. Those who did so were suitable heroes of tragedy, those who did not were philistines. Fichte ended as a rabid German patriot and nationalist.
Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854) had the notion that the world starts from a brute state of unconsciousness that gradually develops self-consciousness. Life becomes an unending, agonizing and violent struggle against such unconsciousness. This struggle gives rise to an obsession with nostalgia and paranoia. Nostalgia arises because the struggle is unending; perfection cannot be approached, so there is always something missing. Paranoia appears because once we gain awareness of a vast unconsciousness outside us, then we develop feelings of fear towards it. Such fear becomes paranoia.
German Romanticism had two enormous consequences on humanity and civilization. First, it ushered in a new perspective in the arts and humanities. The painter was not merely painting things beautifully, but expressing his ideas of beauty through his painting. The painter, sculptor, music composer, singer, writer and poet ceased to be skilled craftsmen, but original, creative artists. Their art is creation.
Second, it spawned some of the most heinous crimes against humanity in human history. German Romanticism let loose the dark forces of human nature by putting the unfettered will in the driving seat. German nationalism and fascism were the violent and irrational manifestations of the people’s will. The ethnic violence after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were driven by intense nativist sentiments. Even to this day, German Romanticism has an unmistakable influence on nationalist, nativist, and Marxist thought.
Romanticism is able to exercise this dual influence by emphasizing the sense of uniqueness, the profound emotional introspection, and the sense of differences of things – of dissimilarities rather than similarities. Post-modern thinking treats objective standards of beauty, taste, and propriety as out of vogue. In our era, it is commonplace for society to forgive certain kinds of totally unacceptable behavior if the perpetrator is an artist, and to even make them an object of adoration. Unacceptable behavior is transformed into tragic heroism.
Of greater concern is that the influence of German Romanticism is why modern day ethics and values have become so less absolute, and so insufferably relative. Modern existence is almost schizophrenic. We have situations where our children tell us it is only our opinion, where our students refuse to learn from us, and where a person on the street tells us to travel for an extra hour to work because he is in the throes of creating a better future for all. They all have a point to make, and possibly a very deserving point, too. But they challenge higher authority not because they are disrespectful to such authority, but that such a thing does not exist.
From the activities and communications of the Hong Kong activists, one can discern clear affinities with various elements of German Romantic thinking, particularly among those nativists who studied literature and the arts. This may be great news for the future of our creative arts, but bad news for our politics.
In a sense, the values that are emerging in our society and being embraced by the new generation are not merely those of diversity and plurality underpinned by shared and common assumptions about what is right and wrong, good and bad, and proper rules of engagement. Rather, they are a deep diversity and deep plurality, where there is no absolute right and wrong or good and bad, and where the proper rules of engagement are no longer give and take, but unending conflict until one party prevails.
It is quiet now, at least for the moment, perhaps as a result of post-demonstration fatigue, but I fear our society is irreversibly divided. Polarization will continue, healing will not happen soon enough. Political developments are about to reach an important watershed. After the summer of 2015, there may be no turning back to pursue the healing of old and new wounds, at least for some long time, if universal suffrage of the Chief Executive is rejected and society fails to agree on any common rules of engagement.
Political conflict in the coming years under the existing political arrangements will consume us and sweep us along. They will be stressful and numbing as opponents on all sides seek to prevail over others, looking for total victory and dictating their terms as they deem fit. The rational approach of give and take in open discourse will be missing. Only conflict will remain.
One October evening, a friend and I walked down the blockaded Garden Road to visit the occupied grounds. As we climbed over the barricades, my friend turned and said, “When will we have the opportunity to walk down the center of Garden Road like this? You know we are breaking the law, but it is great!” The grin on his face revealed a satisfaction found only among those who are doing something naughty.
Germany in the Romantic era was a broken place devastated by the Thirty Years War that left an estimated one-third of the population killed. It had become a backward province and had none of the grandeur of the glittering courts of Paris. Most German thinkers were also deeply religious men and relished the intense inner life of the soul. Unlike their counterparts in France, they were usually men of humble origin with a huge inferiority complex, who harbored a violent hatred of France and its wigs, silk stockings, salons, corruption, generals, emperors, and thinkers with aristocratic connections, who for them were simply incarnations of wealth, wickedness and the devil.
Parallel sentiments are surfacing in Hong Kong, perhaps originating from rising wealth disparity, the Asian Financial Crisis, SARS, China’s reemergence, and “one-country two-systems.” Some in Hong Kong feel the place is like Germany in the second half of the 17th century. Meanwhile, nostalgia and paranoia have joined hands to make an appointment with nativism.
But Hong Kong does not have to be like this. Most will choose differently. This is rational.
Hong Kong is a beautiful free city. Its people are free to think all thoughts. This is the source of its vitality. But Romantic thoughts running wild outside literature and the arts can have dire consequences. Hong Kong must not lose her way as she finds her place in an open society.