Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Hong Kong government is making a mistake by dismissing the causes of Mong Kok violence

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Gary Cheung

Gary Cheung calls on the administration to face up to the reasons that drove young people with few job prospects to vent their frustration

We should not take it for granted that those in power will learn from history.

A week after the Mong Kok riot, the government officially rejected calls by hundreds of academics and professionals for an independent committee to look into the causes of the mayhem. It argued that it was inappropriate to make direct comparisons between “the disturbances in the 1960s” and the unrest that erupted on February 8. “Hong Kong nowadays enjoys free access to information and is a highly democratic and transparent society,” a government spokesman said.

For unknown reasons, the government did not specify that “the disturbances in the 1960s” referred to the 1966 Star Ferry riot.

The riot, which was described by the colonial government as the “Kowloon disturbances”, was triggered by the decision to increase the five-cent ferry fare between Central and Tsim Sha Tsui. During the protests, from April 5 to April 9, mobs threw stones and set fire to buses and various government facilities. The violence resulted in one death and 26 injuries. A total of 1,465 people were arrested.

On April 7, then governor David Trench promised an inquiry into the causes. The initiative, made at the height of the riot, resulted in the appointment of a commission of inquiry on May 3 that year.

Public hearings were held at City Hall where witnesses testified to what happened in those four days and the causes of the disturbances. The hearings and investigation were conducted in parallel with the court proceedings for those arrested during the protests.

The commission, chaired by then chief justice Michael Hogan, released its report in December that year. The 167-page report said evidence relating to the outbreak of the disturbances suggested a gap between the government and the people. “Within the economic and social fields there are factors that need to be watched, lest they provide inflammable material which could erupt into disturbances should opportunities arise in the future,” it said.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, meanwhile, highlighted the fact that most of those arrested in connection with the Mong Kok riot were unemployed, rather than students. He emphasised that their aspirations could not represent those of the majority in Hong Kong.

Strikingly, the Mong Kok mayhem is comparable to the 1966 disturbances when it comes to the socio-economic status of those arrested. The 1966 inquiry report noted that most of the protesters were comparatively poorly educated, poorly housed and lacked good jobs. Among those charged, most were youths aged 16 to 20.

Of the 75 people arrested over rioting in Mong Kok, about half were jobless while others worked in low-paid jobs, as, for example, cooks and salesmen. In short, those involved in the two disturbances were mainly dysfunctional and alienated youth who took the chance to express their discontent with the status quo.

As Mao Zedong (毛澤東) once said, there is no such thing as love or hatred without reason. While the violence in Mong Kok should never be condoned, sending those arrested to courtrooms and jail cannot guarantee the long-term stability of our society if the roots of the troubles are not identified.

Many mainland officials are well versed with dialectical materialism, which states that there must be logic and reasons for something that has happened. So it came as no surprise when Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing revealed two weeks ago that mainland officials are conducting their own study into the causes of the Mong Kok riot.

Qi Pengfei (齊鵬飛), vice-chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, made the no-nonsense comment that many Hongkongers were dissatisfied with the Hong Kong government as the administration had not come up with effective ways to resolve some burning social and livelihood issues.

Indeed, those who love and care about the city should read Why Men Rebel, political scientist Ted Robert Gurr’s classic in understanding the causes of political violence and protests around the world.

Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor


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Who needs Chinese customers? When money doesn’t talk in Hong Kong

South China Morning Post

Cathy Holcombe

I once worked with someone whose favourite expression was “Money focuses the mind”, a playful twist on Samuel Johnson’s observation that when a man “knows he is to be hanged… it concentrates his mind wonderfully”.

Transferred to business, the idea is that the prospect of monetary gain inspires talent and pushes aside unnecessary distractions.

One common distraction in economic exchange, as in all human relations, is prejudice. From antiquity to modern times, trade is credited with facilitating exchanges between different cultures, ideas and peoples. Thus it has been said that commerce is the mother of multiculturalism.

Yet research and experience shows that prejudice still often wins out over money. Popular opinions on immigration and trade, for instance, are often dominated by cultural preferences rather than economic self-interest.

One might think such topics are of only academic interest to Hong Kong, a seemingly homogenous society comprised of 94 per cent Chinese, and one of the freest trading hubs in the world. Yet the tensions between Hongkongers and mainland Chinese provide a fascinating case study of the intersection of cultural and economic interests.

Those in the pro-Beijing camp often warn that anti-mainlander passions are driving away opportunity, pointing as one example to the recent drop-off in tourist arrivals and plunging retail sales. Others say that locals have a rational fear of displacement by mainland economic muscle and political clout.

Anyone who lives in Hong Kong sees this question tested in little everyday daily dramas.

Just last week I was getting my hair blow-dried when a mainland woman peeked in and inquired about a haircut. “Too busy,” my Cantonese stylist said, though I was his only customer.

After she harrumphed and left, it was explained to me that “such customers” aren’t worth it. First they will begin with a ritual sniffing of the shampoo bottle, along with an inquisition into the quality and brand of the product. The demands will continue throughout the haircut, prolonging the misery as well as the time it takes to deliver the service.

Any sentient being in Hong Kong has witnessed similar efforts to deflect or discourage mainland customers.

Where I live, on Lamma island, a restaurant manager recently groused that he had a group of 11 visitors from the Motherland occupy two tables on a busy Saturday; they ordered just a couple bowls of chips to share, washing it down with water.

“They squeeze the vegetables for no reason,” a Lamma shopkeeper complained to me once as a group of Mandarin-speakers lurked near her produce. “Watch them haggle over a can of Coke, they want discounts,” she added indignantly.

Still, it is the very definition of discrimination to judge individuals based on group stereotypes. And whatever the case, one can’t imagine a prosperous future without further economic integration.

In attempt to better concentrate minds on the opportunities for shared prosperity, policymakers have invested a lot of time and money promoting a “united China” narrative which emphasises 5,000 years of shared history.

Why haven’t such educational efforts been more helpful? Lee Siu-yau, an assistant professor in the Department of Asian and Policy Studies at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, thinks the answer may be found in the concept of “group malleability”.

Group malleability “refers to the extent to which the core character, morality, and competence of groups are shaped by context and can be changed and developed through effort, practice, and experience,” says Dr Lee.

The broad literature on social psychology shows that those in malleability camp are more accommodating of outsiders than those who believe that behavioural traits are inherent.

Unfortunately, a “unified Chinese narrative” may have the unintended consequence of supporting a belief system that culture is fixed, not malleable.

It might be better for Beijing and Hong Kong to spend their propaganda dollars on narratives that emphasise the heterogeneity of various Chinese experiences, instead of the homogeneity. Dr Lee is currently conducting research to explore this idea.

His results are not expected for another two years. In the meantime, we are left to ponder: is a propensity for squeezing vegetables or sniffing shampoo hardwired into the DNA, or are we to blame 50 years of Communist Party rule?

Cathy Holcombe is a Hong Kong-based financial writer

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Historicism, postmodernism and political violence: the closing of the human mind

South China Morning Post

Richard Wong

Many university humanities curriculums neglect the study of classical and Enlightenment ideas

The struggle for a more democratic future electoral arrangement under the Basic Law has become increasingly confrontational and even violent. While successful political struggles anywhere are seldom unaccompanied by violence, this does not imply that violent political struggles are morally justified.

Most philosophical traditions have moral sanctions against the use of violence against fellow men, including in politics.

Hobbes and Locke advocated a social contract theory of the state by arguing that when men agreed to leave the state of nature and join civilization, it was to end or limit violence and respect the rule of law.

Henry Thoreau went to jail for one day because he refused to pay his taxes in protest against the state for constitutionally legitimising slavery, but he was not violent even though he broke the law. His idea of civil disobedience influenced Gandhi and also Martin Luther King.

All of this is not to say that the birth of liberal political democracy has been non-violent; the issue is whether the use of violence has a moral ground.
Once the door to violence is open, it might be difficult to close

An even more important reason why violence should not be endorsed and legitimated is that the forces that overthrow an oppressive government could themselves become the new oppressor. Once the door to violence is open, it might be difficult to close. Violence often only begets more violence.

Yet I know of two intellectual traditions that have been employed to justify the use of violence to achieve political goals: historicism and postmodernism. I find both extremely unpalatable.

Historicism emphasises the significance of a specific context, such as a historical period, geographical place and local culture. It argues that to understand why a person is the way he is, you must examine that person in his society, and to understand that society, you must understand its history and the forces that influenced it.

Historicism has been interpreted variously. One strand has focused on Hegel’s views about the historically determined nature of human societies, and inspired the genocidal excesses of the German Nazi state.

Another focused on Hegel’s ideas about social conflict and social progress, and inspired Karl Marx.

Karl Popper condemned historicism for its view of an inevitable human destiny could be transformed into a justification for violent struggles to overthrow an oppressive state and for the state to violently oppress the people in fulfilment of that destiny. He believed human history was not predetermined and could not be predicted.

Postmodernism is a 20th-century philosophical movement that, like historicism, emerged in continental Europe. Its most important consequence is its scepticism that all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, can offer an objective truth of reality.

Postmodernism is the most ruthlessly consistent statement of anti-reason and anti-realism. It places feeling at the root of all values, regards knowledge and values as relative, and devalues the scientific enterprise.

Postmodernism completely rejects Enlightenment rationality. Truth and values are no longer absolute and objective, but relative and subjective.

Once we set aside reality and reason, what are we left with? We can, as the conservatives prefer, simply turn to and follow the traditions of the groups we belong to. Or we can, as the postmodernists prefer, turn to our feelings and follow them.

These core feelings are related to ideas about human nature put forth by the likes of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, who placed rage, power, guilt, lust, and fear at the centre of the postmodernist emotional universe.

Postmodernists disagree over whether those core feelings are determined biologically or socially. In either case, individuals are not in control of their feelings: their identities are a product of their group memberships and their “truths” are “ethnocentric truths” determined subjectively within their groups.

With no objective standard by which to mediate different perspectives and feelings, and no appeal to reason possible, group Balkanization (or fragmentation) and conflict must necessarily result.

Hong Kong’s youths, like those elsewhere, have had an overdose of postmodernist ideas. Their minds are a ready canvas for historicist dreamers bent on inventing nativist narratives to interpret Hong Kong’s difficult economic, social and political condition for them.

The humanities curriculums of so many universities today are dominated by “multicultural studies” that teach only “ethnocentric truths”, crowding out the study of classical and Enlightenment ideas. They are closing the minds of our most talented youths.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a liberal American politician and sociologist, said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” The postmodernist would respond by saying: facts cannot be known, and if your opinion is not the same as mine, you are not a member of my community. The next step is to determine whether you are friend or foe. This is one of the legacies of postmodernism.

A concoction of postmodernism and historicism will not bode well for the future of liberalism.

Richard Wong Yue-chim is Philip Wong Kennedy Wong Professor in Political Economy at the University of Hong Kong

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ATV’s collapse exposes Hong Kong-China cultural divide of the type that breeds localism

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Yonden Lhatoo

Yonden Lhatoo says mainland investors drove the city’s oldest television station into the ground because of management styles that just don’t work on this side of the border

I thought I’d seen it all until I visited ATV’s headquarters in Tai Po last Friday, expecting court-appointed liquidators to shut down the cash-strapped station where I got my break in broadcast journalism many years ago.

I wanted to extend some moral support to the last of my former comrades-in-arms still there, but soon found myself in the middle of the media circus parked outside the building. We were all ushered inside for a press conference by representatives of Si Rongbin (司榮彬), the mainland investor trying to keep the station on air until April 1, when its much-abused free-to-air licence finally expires.

We watched, incredulous, as Jan He, Si’s point woman at ATV, put on a bizarre show for the media featuring a cheque and a briefcase full of cash – HK$10 million in all, if she was telling the truth – that were brought out on stage.

I had to pick my jaw off the floor when she calmly announced that the money was not for settling outstanding wages owed to staff for January and February, but would instead be offered to those willing to sign a new contract only for March so the station wouldn’t have to close down early.

This from the same woman who, in early February, sparked a mass walkout when she informed unpaid staff they would have to work for a third month without getting a cent, and that their salaries were not as important as the survival of the station. She had the temerity to say this to a bunch of long-suffering employees who were counting on the new investor she represented to keep his promise to pump billions of dollars into the ailing company.

They had already endured months of late payments and uncertainty under the previous mainland investor, Wong Ching, the man who precipitated the collapse of the world’s first Chinese-language television station.

Now that’s a name that has become synonymous with public hate and ridicule in this town. The previously obscure businessman came onto the scene six years ago with lofty promises of turning ATV into “Asia’s CNN”, only to plunge the company into one crisis after another. He finally ended up selling his controlling stake to Si and then going to court to have the company liquidated – remaining staff be damned – to recoup his losses.

No one will forget how he orchestrated what was arguably the most cringeworthy moment in Hong Kong’s broadcasting history with his knock-kneed version of Korean rapper Psy’s Gangnam Style dance outside government headquarters to protest against the opening up of the city’s television market to competition.

When you look at what happened at ATV, it’s not hard to imagine how this sort of thing feeds into the bias and suspicion among Hongkongers regarding the mainland. I don’t for a moment condone those reprehensible protests against mainland visitors featuring racist abuse and even violence, but I’m beginning to understand why “localism” is not a dirty word any more.

I suppose that’s why we have prominent pro-establishment figures coming out openly these days to defend those who are getting increasingly assertive about Hong Kong’s distinct identity and culture, even though it’s an inalienable part of China.

Of course, there are far better mainland employers running successful businesses in Hong Kong who could show people like Wong and Si that their obtuse management styles might make sense across the border but just won’t work here.

The death of ATV is a quid pro quo lesson for those from the other side to understand and appreciate Hong Kong’s way of life.

Integration is a two-way street.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post

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Hong Kong’s pan-democrats must unite in battle for survival ahead of key legislative election

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Albert Cheng

Albert Cheng says the rise of militant localist groups has eaten into the voter base for mainstream democratic parties, who must lose no time in working together to prepare for the upcoming polls

The New Territories East by-election has been branded a dress rehearsal for the Legislative Council poll on September 4. It is now clear that the activists behind the violent protests in Mong Kok are poised to make their way into the legislature.

Edward Leung Tin-kei, who was on bail in connection with alleged rioting, lost in the by-election but managed to garner more than 66,000 ballots, 15.4 per cent of the vote. This level of popularity can be translated into at least one Legco seat under the proportional representation system. Leung is the standard bearer of Hong Kong Indigenous, which denounces mainland visitors as intruding on Hong Kong’s way of life. It is one of the radical bodies to emerge from the 2014 Occupy Central campaign that endorse the use of force as a legitimate means against the unpopular government. They seek autonomy for Hong Kong beyond 2047, when “one country, two systems” is supposedly due for review, and insist there is no “bottom line” for their political struggle.

Apparently based on confidential government surveys, Executive Council member Cheung Chi-kong estimated that 5.5 per cent of Hong Kong people are sympathetic to their cause. The “militant localist” groups have obviously eaten into the pan-democrats’ traditional support base. November’s district council elections also pointed to this trend.

The pan-democrats are in dire need of a major repositioning to retain their influence.

Today’s voters are discontented with the status quo. That includes the ageing leadership of the pro-democratic factions. It’s time for the old guard to make way for their second and third in line to take over the helm; its not a matter of political decency but survival.

The demand for change is loud and clear. The outcomes of the by-election have sounded the alarm bells not only for the government and its supporters, but, more importantly, for the pan-democrats. The Civic Party and Democratic Party should consider a merger to present themselves with new vigour to the middle class. The Labour Party, the Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood, the Neighbourhood Workers Service Centre and other smaller groups should be welcomed on board.

In contrast with localism groups, a united democratic front needs to insist on non-violence. The vast majority of residents want to see the back of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. At that same time, they do not condone youngsters hurling bricks at the police.

The new democratic front should coordinate with the League of Social Democrats, People’s Power and the Neo-Democrats – once deemed radical and now ridiculed by the localists as meek – to gain maximum appeal and retain the pan-democrats’ status as the second-largest bloc after the pro-establishment camp.

They should take Benny Tai Yiu-ting’s “thunderbolt plan” seriously. He is confident that non-establishment candidates can win half the 70 seats up for grabs, provided they can put aside their sectorial interests and personal agendas to work under a concerted strategy. Tai has urged the pan-democrats to sign up at least 10,000 voters in each of the five geographical constituencies. They would withhold their ballots until the last moment, to vote tactically in response to exit poll results. The goal is to enable pro-democracy nominees not listed as the first two preferences on the ticket to be returned under the “largest remainder” voting arrangement.

Tai is optimistic that pro-democracy candidates can win 23 of the 35 directly elected seats, if the turnout breaks records as first-time voters show up in force. The remaining 12 spots could come from three so-called super seats and nine functional constituencies.

The pan-democrats are not known for their unity. It also remains to be seen how exit poll data can be calibrated for tactical voting. Yet, the prospect of a Legco dominated for the first time by the opposition cannot be dismissed lightly.

It will be easier said than done. The Civic and Democratic parties are divided houses. This is probably their last chance. They had better jump on it before they are rendered irrelevant in the polarising political landscape.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.