Populism, Localism and the Politics of Hong Kong


What a difference a year makes. When writing my first blog early in 2016, there was widespread international disaffection with elites, arising in part from the financial crisis of 2008/2009 and the incompetence, greed and occasional criminality that it revealed.

However, what had not then occurred was the outbreak of populism in developed economies that led to the rejection by British voters of membership of the European Union in June of 2016, and in November the election in the United States of President Donald Trump. Both these outcomes came as a surprise to elites and in contradiction of their confident predictions that such calamities would not occur.

Now there are concerns that in forthcoming European elections populists will make unprecedented gains, even, perhaps, winning control of governments.

It is possible, some suggest, that similar developments could take root in Hong Kong, with Localism being the initial, poorly executed, harbinger of a wider populist movement against Hong Kong elites. One sign of such activity are reports that the indefatigable Benny Tai , an early proponent of Occupy Central, is planning to coach the pan-democrats on the Election Committee in how to conduct a referendum on popular preferences for the next Chief Executive of the HKSAR.

Most people in Hong Kong understand Localism, a thin disguise for a Hong Kong independence movement. Populism is a less familiar term, customarily associated with economically disadvantaged and frequently corrupt regimes in Latin America and widely associated in popular culture with Argentina, via Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical ‘Evita’.

Some clarification of populism is therefore required.

  1. Its basis is resentment of elites. Elites are perceived to be indifferent to or ignorant of the difficulties and concerns of the poor, the disadvantaged, the unemployed, generally those who have been left behind by growing economies or technological innovation.
  2. Populist movements tend to be backward looking, recalling times when there existed greater opportunities for economic and social advancement. But anger is not focused exclusively on elites. Other groups that are believed to have contributed to the frustration of the disadvantaged, most notably immigrants, are targeted. Such views can morph into racism.
  3. Further, the desire to shield the disadvantaged from ‘unfair’ competition, even to revive the glorious past, contributes to populist support for protectionist measures.
  4. And finally, leaders of populist movements are widely seen to be strong or charismatic, although such views are not universally shared. Their desire to overturn conventional politics can stoke indifference to, even contempt for, the law. This strain of populism has been labeled by Martin Wolf, writing in the Financial Times about the Governments of Poland and Hungary, as ‘authoritarian nationalism’.

Using the above as a checklist, one can identify symptoms that could generate a broadly based populist movement in Hong Kong. But there are constraints.

First on the local list is resentment of elites. Concerns about the wealth gap, the cost of housing, the lack of opportunities for the young, or the weakness of social security nets are commonly acknowledged and widely resented. Most telling for the writer was to discover on arriving in Hong Kong more than 20 years ago that ‘Superman’ was not a cartoon character but a businessman called Li Ka Shing. More recently he has been called the Devil. Quite a change.

Second, there is definitely resentment of outside groups, primarily mainland Chinese. Whether it is the habits of mainland visitors, the appetite of some for locally source goods such as infant formula, or acquisition by the rich of Hong Kong property, dislike, even contempt, is openly expressed.

And, third, people do look back to the days when the economy boomed and social mobility existed.

However, in Hong Kong there is no interest in ‘leadership’ that undermines the rule of law, which is regarded as a defence against repression rather than a burden from which relief is sought.

As noted above, there are constraints on the success of any Hong Kong populist movement. Most significant of these is that China is Hong Kong’s sovereign; and China is consistent in its advocacy of ‘social harmony, a goal that does not tolerate radically disruptive policies. They will not be permitted. A populist government will not take office.

Further, the obsessive concern of anti-establishment members of Legco with ‘universal suffrage’ has distracted from creative policy making in other areas of public concern. There is no coherent policy base for a populist insurgency.

And strong leadership? Not presently on the horizon.

And yet. Populist policies can have impact from outside government. Nigel Farage in the UK demonstrated that a charismatic leader of a small political party could engineer the country’s exodus from the European Union.

In Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, has made it known that her candidacy in the Chief Executive election was prompted by God. She has also conceded that without a mandate from the people of Hong Kong, governing will be difficult, recognition that there is truth in the proverb vox populi, vox dei – the voice of the people is the voice of God. Something, it will be concluded after the election in March, must be done. But not too much.

Do not expect radical policies from our next government. Do not look for robust challenges to vested interests, nor hope for inspirational leadership. But in pursuit of social harmony and less anger on the streets the disadvantaged may yet be allowed their moment in the sun.

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