I have never heard the phrase “we need to be pragmatic” as often as I have heard it expressed in Hong Kong. It is no surprise then that Hong Kong people frequently hold up “pragmatism” as being a value they admire.

A columnist in Hong Kong once wrote that there has been a “death of ideology” in Asia. What he meant was casting off the rigid “isms” that have governed Asia’s various states for decades, even centuries—fascism, socialism, and so on. States should go with the flow of globalization and “what works” practically. But sorry, ideology is not “dead.”

Photo: HKFP.

But this “going with the flow” is an ideology, as ideology in its simplest means a generally held set of views about something. Thus, “pragmatism” itself is an ideology.

Pragmatism boils down to wanting maximum results with minimum costs in the shortest possible time. This is not in itself bad, as most people would like this to happen, but often this may come at a price of sacrificing a long-held belief or cherished idea, simply for short-term gain, if the consequences of the action are not well thought out.

“Being pragmatic” in the Hong Kong context often leads to a “wait and see” mentality of waiting to see what happens next and a hesitation to show commitment, as there may be something “better around the corner.” For example, I once saw a poster on a university notice board: “this contract will be of 12 months’ duration unless circumstances change” and “if economic conditions change, the salary may be adjusted” – classic examples of a refusal to commit. What’s the problem in one’s word being one’s bond? I see it as being afraid to make a mistake that necessitates an apology.

Pro-democracy protesters at last year’s Occupy protests. Photo: HKFP.

Being “pragmatic” is often used in discussions of Hong Kong’s political development. Some say that Hong Kong people “must be pragmatic” about what is achievable, democracy-wise, as they have to work within the rigid confines of the framework laid down by Beijing. I think that one can be realistic about the difficulties that these confines bring to the discussion but it doesn’t mean that we cannot think of ways to achieve our ideals—a more inclusive democratic system—within the boundaries set before us. Too often “being pragmatic” means to “give up.”

Although a simple dictionary definition of “pragmatism” is “character or conduct that emphasizes practicality,” I don’t think that it means that you can’t hold any consistent belief or need to give up that belief if the circumstances are such that it may make a situation seemingly impossible to attain. There’s nothing wrong with being “adaptable”—that is a good trait and Hong Kong has had to adapt to conditions beyond its control. Being “pragmatic” doesn’t mean losing core values such as the rule of law, empathy for others or social justice in order to please certain economic sectors or the political will of others.


Jennifer Eagleton

Jennifer Eagleton, a Hong Kong resident since 1997, is a policy committee member of the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation and was an adviser to the University of Hong Kong’s “Designing Democracy Hong Kong” project. Her PhD analyzed how Hong Kong talks about democracy through metaphor. She is a teacher of English and linguistics as well as researcher and editor.