(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 2 March 2016.)
Unresolved and worsening socioeconomic problems are a necessary, but not sufficient cause for political violence to emerge. The resort to violence occurs only when opposing camps have closed their minds. Both sides then perceive the other side as intolerant, a threat, and a menace that need not, indeed should not, be tolerated.
An enlightened society requires tolerance, for otherwise liberal pluralism will give way to oppressive monism. Unless everyone is on the same side, hatred comes to define human relationships.
Attacking fallen policemen is an extreme form of violence. It is an act not just against the state, but against humanity. Civil disobedience cannot justify such extreme acts, not even when it is in the name of thwarted political aspirations for democracy. Impatience is intolerance in another form.
The political sentiment expressed by nativist groups and their adherents is that they are defending their values, their lifestyle, their place, and their resources against Mainland encroachment. They are fighting for their dignity. They were deeply disappointed by the “August 31st” decision and when 79 days of the Occupy Movement was politically ignored. Their dignity had been affronted. But does this justify extreme acts of violence?
Voting is so special because one has faith that “counting heads” is better than “breaking heads” as a solution to political disputes. Human life and, therefore, human dignity is valued for its own sake, and not as a means to an end. If democratic ideals have to be pursued through non-democratic means, then that ideal is tarnished.
But this enlightened view of liberal democratic ideals is no longer how some in Hong Kong view things today. Why is that the case?
In the 1980s, there was a growing worldwide consensus around Enlightenment values: free intellectual inquiry, individual rights, tolerance, and the consent of the governed. Today, the world seems as divided as ever and so is Hong Kong.
On a world scale, the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union gave political liberalism a huge boost in reputation and confidence. In 1973, only 45 countries representing 30% of the world’s countries were democracies. But by the late 1990s, some 120 countries around the world (more than 60% of the world’s independent states) had become electoral democracies.
Economic liberalism also gained widespread support as a strategy to lift poor nations and poor people out of poverty. The period 1980-2005 was the era of global economic integration. Professor Andrei Shleifer called it the Age of Milton Friedman.
Hong Kong in the 1980s was firmly committed to both economic and social liberalism, but not political liberalism. In the economic realm, it was committed to a brand of 19th century economic liberalism known as positive non-interventionism. In the social realm it was committed to the 20th century vision of the liberal social welfare state.
Both co-existed side by side, delicately balanced by a colonial government through the instruments of a professional bureaucracy and a political system of advisory committees. Professor Ambrose King called it the administrative absorption of politics.
Historically, social liberalism in Hong Kong was introduced in the aftermath of the 1967 riots to complement economic liberalism as a governance strategy, in response to the stresses of a rapidly industrializing society. In the West, social liberalism was a response to the economic devastation of the Great Depression and the political challenges that arose from domestic socialist movements after the rise of communism in the Soviet Union.
In the democratic West, the balance between economic and social liberalism was initially tilted more in favor of the latter, but in colonial Hong Kong it was more tilted towards the former. So as the West rebalanced towards economic liberalism from 1980, Hong Kong gained enormous recognition as a model of free market capitalism. It became a beacon for China when she decided to open up and reform her economy.
The era of global economic integration witnessed major strides in technological innovation, rapid economic growth, huge declines in world poverty rates, but also of rising income inequality both within nations and between nations (although income inequality in the world population fell because poverty rates were declining and a large Asian middle class was created; most of them were Chinese).
China was the major economic beneficiary of all this, having decided to open up and reform its economy at the most opportune time in 1979. Hong Kong reaped double benefits from China’s opening and global economic integration.
But such rapid economic transformation in Hong Kong and China brought rising economic inequality and social conflict to both societies that required urgent political attention.
One of the central social challenges on the Mainland has been the massive rural migration into the cities that has hugely impacted both urban and rural areas and brought new fiscal challenges. In Hong Kong, the huge scale of cross-border marriages (about 40% of all marriages for three decades) has challenged family stability, social welfare and housing provision, and created economic inequality and social divide.
In China, rising corruption was another emerging challenge and is now viewed as both cause and consequence of economic inequality and is being tackled with unusual vehemence. In Hong Kong, however, the restoration of sovereignty in 1997 channeled enormous energy and attention was diverted into conflicts over how political rules should be set rather than trying to find solutions to economic and social problems. These problems have now become political ones.
The pace of global economic integration stalled in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. The subsequent economic recession and slowdown of the world economy tarnished the feathers of economic liberalism. Its intellectual ideas are no longer as welcomed. Political unrest has appeared in many parts of the world today because new economic and social inequalities have arisen and are still unaddressed. It is of course difficult to do so when governments are out of money and different groups disagree on what is to be done.
Political liberalism has also met setbacks. In the first decade of the 21st century, about one in five countries that had become democratized since the 1980s reverted back to authoritarianism. The reputation of political liberalism also suffered after “9/11” and the American invasion of Iraq. Liberals in America, including Milton Friedman himself, criticized the invasion of Iraq and pointed an accusing finger at American hubris. Indeed, the US political agenda to reshape the world and foreign countries according to liberal norms has encountered increasing skepticism and resistance.
A true liberal respects the rights of others to follow their own lifestyle and does not seek to impose his values on others. Hubris is intolerance, impatience, illiberal and undemocratic.
The intellectual atmosphere has obviously changed significantly in the 21st century. Liberalism is no longer at its peak influence in the world, in China or in Hong Kong.
An obvious outcome has been the ascendance of anti-capitalist ideas. This is to be expected after the 2008 financial crisis and persistent inequality continue to keep the issue alive. Historically, left-wing socialist ideas have led the battle against capitalism. But what stands out in Hong Kong is the rise of nativism. This has spread very quickly, especially among youths and in the connected online world. It even has some fans among groups concerned with heritage, conservation, culture, architecture, art, cinema, and language issues.
The intellectual roots of nativism, as a serious idea, first appeared among German thinkers in the late 17th century as a reaction to the Enlightenment and advances of scientific knowledge. German culture in the 17th and 18th centuries drifted in the direction of the inner life of the human soul. This was stimulated in part by the rise of Lutheranism.
The Counter Enlightenment movement in Germany saw science as anti-religion and resented the role of God as a passive mechanic or mathematician that He had been cast in by the new scientific learning. This movement invented the more fitting role of God as poet, who breathed meaning into life. Hamann’s mystical vitalism and Herder’s doctrine of art as expression and communication articulated the idea that the people construct the world, and so the German people construct the German world.
From this, Herder developed the notion that every man seeks to belong to some kind of group, and if taken out of it will feel alien and not at home. He invented the whole idea of roots, of belonging to a group, a sect, or a movement. Kant contributed the idea that the scientific laws of nature need not confine the spiritual mind because man is an autonomous being. Schiller would then introduce the notion that if a man is to be free, he must be free to stand above desire and will, duty and interests, the right and the wrong, and act accordingly, if need be against nature. To be able to so choose is to be free. Fichte would then add that life begins with action, and actions springs from will, asking, “Who is the master, nature or I?” “I am not determined by ends, ends are determined by me.” “The world…is the poem thus dreamed out by the inner life.”
Against this background, Hegel would complete the most comprehensive statement of the idealistic philosophy that regards human will as the driver of human history, progressing towards a purpose pre-ordained by a deity, in a dialectical manner, and acted out through self-conscious human action. The idea that men belonging to a group, class, sect or ethnicity could together create history and change the course of nature is the unique contribution of German philosophers and has been the inspiration of both fascist and communist causes.
Nativism in Hong Kong draws its inspiration explicitly from German philosophical influence. For example, Chan Wan, an assistant professor who has just lost his position at Lingnan University, offers a city-state narrative of his hopes for Hong Kong that is impregnated with poetic German idealism. As romanticist literature it has influenced young minds in Hong Kong.
German thinkers of that period were a highly intelligent lot, but were socially crushed and politically miserable human beings. Germany had failed to achieve centralized statehood in the way England and France did and it was still governed by 300 princes and 1,200 sub-princes. Above all, it had experienced the violent dislocation of the Thirty Years War during which 7.5 million people were killed (mostly Germans), constituting 1.4% of the world’s population at that time.
There was a kind of huge national inferiority complex – Bach’s musical genius notwithstanding, although the whole atmosphere and tone of his music is more confined to the inner religious life of the city of Leipzig and was never intended to be an offering before the glittering courts of Europe or for the general admiration of mankind.
Most German thinkers were of humble origin, including Hamann, Kant, Herder and Fichte. Hegel and Schelling were lower middle class. All were deeply religious. This was in huge contrast to English and French philosophers, many of whom were aristocrats and high members in the church hierarchy, or from good origin. Their mere existence irritated, humiliated and infuriated the Germans. When Herder came to Paris, he was unable to get into contact with any of these men.
One cannot help wonder what the effect has been on the psyche of local youths when one-fifth of the population in Hong Kong are immigrants who arrived from the Mainland after China’s opening, most of them poor and living in public rental housing estates in the more remote areas. Wouldn’t their minds resonate with the alienation of these German thinkers of the past? The German influence will not make them liberal, but only more populist and unmistakably nativist.
Across the border on the Mainland, intellectual thought has become active again in the face of three decades of social change and dislocation brought about by double-digit economic growth. Parts of the New Left in China that critiqued American imperialism and neoliberalism in the 1990s has reconnected with Confucianism and German idealistic intellectual traditions that is more statist and illiberal in character, and is gaining influence in official circles.
This is not unexpected in light of China’s long history as a state centered nation. Thirty years of rapid economic modernization has made the state much more powerful than at any time in two thousand years of its history. And rising populist sentiment against corruption and socioeconomic inequality has also nurtured a yearning for state action to correct the perceived excesses of an unfettered market and the decadence of dissenting liberal ideas.
When the dominant ideology now on the rise in the Mainland meets rising nativism in Hong Kong, confrontation is the most likely outcome. Both have their intellectual roots in illiberal German idealism. “One-country two-systems” in Hong Kong is now held hostage to growing intolerance. Minds are closed when tolerance vanishes. Tolerance is in steep decline in Hong Kong and also on the Mainland. Hopefully it will not eventually become the hardened official position of the authorities.
John Maynard Keynes once said, “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” How true! Economists at their worst wreck only economies; political philosophers with closed minds wreck politics, and with it everything else.