(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 23 March 2016.)
Nativism has recently emerged as a force in the local social movement. Its presence can be identified with specific isolated events – the anti-locust action, baby formula action, anti-cross-border parallel trade actions in Yuen Long and Shatin, and student union elections at several universities. The prospect that it may become a political force to be reckoned with was suggested in the outcome of the recent Northeast New Territories by-election.
A new generation of youths is emerging as active members of the social movement. Not all of them have a nativist profile, many are still looking where to land, but they are discovering that nativism is appealing to a growing number of their peers.
Who are these young voters? Why are they interested in politics? What factors have shaped their political outlooks? I conjecture four factors are shaping their development, which I base on parallels in history, mostly German history – a natural place to look for comparisons because it is the intellectual home of nativism (that eventually transformed into nationalism) as a political force.
The four factors are (1) prolonged economic and social deprivation amidst growing opulence, (2) humiliation and failure to find human fulfillment, (3) rejection of the narrative of the glittering world, and (4) the search for a new narrative that embraces courage and the martial spirit.
The first factor is present in Hong Kong’s remote public rental housing estates, which are a fertile breeding ground of isolated, lonely, frustrated youths. In the 1990s, when they were born, many of the new public rental housing estates were built in the New Territories, and there is where many of them grew up.
Their childhood was not only poor, but also cut off from the rest of Hong Kong. Many probably do not visit Central until they are in their late teens because of the cost of getting there. The Hong Kong beyond their small corner is familiar to them only through television and increasingly the mobile phone. This is a very different experience from those who grew up in the public rental housing estates in Kowloon or Hong Kong Island before the 1980s, who could experience Hong Kong’s city life a mere 15 minutes walking distance away.
A trip into the city center is not only prohibitively expensive. For the few who are admitted into schools in Kowloon or on Hong Kong Island, the daily commute can be a long journey in a congested train cabin on the East Rail with all too many luggage-carrying passengers speaking in a different dialect. Those who do not travel by rail are not spared since the most nightmarish experiences are often posted on YouTube. This kind of youth experience is quite different from that of someone growing up in Kowloon or on Hong Kong Island, especially if they do not live in public rental housing estates.
In 1981, only 51.4% of households (with heads less than 65 years of age) in public rental housing estates had incomes below the median household income of the population, but thirty years later in 2011, this had risen to 80.0%. The percentage of divorced households in the lowest income quartile living in public rental housing increased from 1.6% in 1976 to 31.1% in 2011. The percentage of single-parent households among ever-married households with children living in public rental housing belonging to the lowest income quartile has increased from 4.3% in 1976 to 16.0% in 2011. And in 2011, 40% of the households in public rental housing estates had members who were recent immigrants who arrived in the past 20 years.
Public rental housing estates are now home to most low-income households, divorced households, single-parent households, and recent immigrant households. Many of these households are concentrated in the remote and isolated parts of Hong Kong, often in the North New Territories.
This deterioration has happened so quickly because of the enormous social and economic transformation that has taken place over the past three decades. This transformation has not gone entirely unnoticed to grassroots social workers. But much of the impact has escaped public consciousness and not been understood – the massive numbers involved, the causes, the human impacts, and the political implications. A rising Gini-coefficient on income inequality cannot convey these things.
Indeed one could even argue that our existing policies have worked and responded to the changes as expected. After all we have now concentrated these people into remote and isolated pubic rental housing estates, and these are “nice” ones compared with such poverty traps as les banlieues of Paris.
Still, individuals and families that live and grow up in public rental housing estates do not circulate. They are permanent residents and neighbors in a stable community that is ripe for a politician trying to build a constituency, a voter base of frustrated people and an army of youth volunteers eager for a narrative that would ignite their imaginations about the meaning of their future. This leads us to the second factor.
What kind of narrative would strike a chord? Here I will draw on parallels in German history. The Thirty Years War, which ended in 1648, was the most devastating war in European history. The destruction of human life on the battlefield was limited by comparison with later conflicts, but there were incomparably more victims in the civilian population. In Germany, some districts lost up to one-third of their inhabitants; central Europe and the Bohemian lands (modern Czech and Slovakia) contained more than a few places where the decline reached one-half. In terms of total deaths as a fraction of the world population of the time, it ranks among the top 10 in world history and the worst ever in European history.
The German spirit was crushed, with the result that German culture became provincialized, for example, Bach’s music despite its brilliance. There was a huge national inferiority complex vis-à-vis the great progressive Western States, particularly France who dominated the sciences and the arts, and all the provinces of human life, with a kind of arrogance and success unseen hitherto.
German intellectual life retreated in the direction of the inner life of the human soul, even to the extent of glorifying the irrational and mystical. In the words of Isaiah Berlin: “The result was an intense inner life, a great deal of very moving and very interesting but highly personal and violently emotional literature, hatred of the intellect, and above all, of course, violent hatred of France, of wigs, of silk stockings, of salons, of corruption, of generals, of emperors, of all the great and magnificent figures of this world, who are simply incarnations of wealth, wickedness and the devil.
“This is a natural reaction on the part of a pious and humiliated population, and has happened since their day in other places as well. It is a particular form of anti-culture, anti-intellectualism and xenophobia – to which the Germans were, at that particular moment, especially prone.”
For decades, well into the 18th century, the entire German population shared the misery. In Hong Kong, the suffering has fallen on a growing minority that has lagged increasingly behind the winners. Within a span of three decades, Hong Kong went from producing one-fifth of China’s GDP to only 3%. Before the Asian Financial Crisis struck in 1997, many in Hong Kong were forecasting optimistically that the city would become the Manhattan of the East. Instead they became a city of salespersons to visitors from the Mainland, and they themselves went hunting for bargains across the border. Realizing that they owed their daily bread to the charity of others was not dignifying even if it brought some small comfort.
In 1640, the Great Elector Frederick William (1640-88) began a process of state and military building in Prussia that, carried on by his successors, would eventually lead to the unification of Germany in 1870 and successfully challenge France and the other powers in Europe. Prussia built a non-patrimonial and non-aristocratic rational state bureaucracy and military that was headed by a liberal autocrat – it was like “an army with a country.” For Prussia, state and military building became a necessity for survival.
The young philosopher Hegel (1770-1831), who witnessed Napoleon riding through the university town of Jena, saw in that defeat the triumph of the modern state. He argued in The Phenomenology of the Spirit (1807) that this type of state modernity represented the culmination of a long historical process of the human spirit making itself manifest. The German search for human fulfillment in the inner life of the soul after the Thirty Years War found its destiny in imagining liberation as a construction of state power and with it a national identity
The attempted articulation of nativism as a narrative for Hong Kong’s future, while still a project in progress, is a rejection of the dominant ideas of Hong Kong’s politics of the past 60 years – including the roles of of government and the establishment and that of the mainstream democratic opposition. The rejection of all dominant ideas of the past, including those held by mainstream democrats, and paying lip service to democratic values, is the third factor shaping the rising influence of radical nativism. This parallels the German rejection of the liberalism of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18thcenturies in search of state power and identity.
The romantic idealism of those who are attempting to articulate a nativist narrative for Hong Kong, given the unrealism of their goals, is almost laughable to anyone who has his head screwed on right. Yet the idea of German unification in 1648 must have seemed to be a ridiculous idea then, too – Germany was still governed by 300 princes and 1,200 sub-princes and hopelessly divided (see map). But the power of ideas did eventually triumph in the German case and, unfortunately, also led to some very terrible consequences for humanity.
The German probing into the depths of the human soul has also brought many new benefits for human life. The idea that artists are creators rather than craftsmen was a liberating one. It allowed art to become an expression of the artists’ view of the world rather than the artists’ attempt to represent the world. The subjective mind was unanchored and it led to a marvelous enrichment of human life, as well as the need to live with a lot of nonsense (requiring tolerance of a higher order). Music, dance, theatre, paintings, cultures, architecture, and literature were all affected.
Many who visited the Occupy movement in Admiralty brought back stories, photos, and samples of creative objects and writings that spoke volumes about the enormous creative vitality of the young people who were there.
But in political life, German idealism led to a very different conception of power and the state. Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) was the most serious German jurist and political theorist who supported Nazism. He argued that democracy and parliamentarism (or liberalism) are in conflict. Parliamentarism is not a discussion about what is the right thing to do, but a negotiation over interests.
He argued that liberals tend to think of politics as a servant to economics; parliamentarism considers the essence of politics to be law. But Schmitt argued that the very concept of the political implies that it is about making the ultimate decision, declaring an absolute commitment. Parliamentarism pretends that politics can avoid such decisions, but in fact exposes the state to the dangers of factions. He concludes that the right political decision resides with the historical destiny of the people and their state. If this is indeed the case, then everything that stands in the state’s way becomes an obstacle to progress; and the deployment of all methods would then be acceptable.
Schmitt wrote presciently that globalization would intensify rather than diminish international conflict (this was in 1950) and that terrorism would spread as an effective response to globalization (this was in 1963). He reasoned that given the adversarial nature of politics, conflict becomes unavoidable when communities with different cultures come to engage each other deeply. The rising martial spirit in Hong Kong’s social movement among radical nativists as an instrument of their struggles is the fourth factor.
Schmitt probably had an insight into the darker hidden forces inside the human mind, which classical liberal thinkers often failed to recognize or ignore. History is replete with the horrors of genocide, religious and ethnic cleansing, and class wars that one cannot ignore.
Liberalism does not have all the answers in this world. German idealism was born at a time of economic and social suffering and deep psychological humiliation. These experiences unlocked creative forces in the human mind, and also its destructive powers when deployed against men rather than in creating value.
The German philosopher on the edge of the precipice, who looks down and is unable to see what is below, decides to leap in an act of faith imagining what is down there. The British philosopher, upon failing to see anything, decides that he is not curious enough to know what is below the precipice, moves away from the edge, and continues his walk on firm ground. I hope young men and women who grow up in Hong Kong will not be too tempted by the German philosophical and political ideas that emerged before World War II.