By Chris Maden
Many of my pro-establishment friends accuse the protesters of being “brainwashed” into believing in democracy, rights and the like. Likewise, a common thread amongst the protesters is that the establishment has been “indoctrinated”.
Although the terms are different, the outcome is the same: both accusations present the “brainwashed” or “indoctrinated” as unwitting agents of others.
I do not believe that either characterisation is correct. To the contrary, I think that both groups are acting from rational self-interest. I further believe that, if the current protests are to be ended by dialogue rather than violent suppression, both sides need to acknowledge each other’s rational self-interest.
As things stand, although more than the terms stand in the way, their use isn’t helping matters: why speak to the “brainwashed” or “indoctrinated” when it is the brainwashers and indoctrinators who call the shots?
Let’s begin with the protesters. Although the public is losing patience with the violence, and although people of all ages marched and rallied, the movement as a whole is a young one. As such, most of the activists were born after I arrived in 1987. They have no memory of colonial Hong Kong, but that does not affect the economic facts.
I arrived three years out of university, and my first job in Hong Kong paid HK$14,000 per month, which was pretty average then. Today, 32 years on, a fresh graduate can expect HK$16,000. Those 32 years ago, a Big Mac meal was about HK$10, it is now HK$35; a square foot in a newly built apartment was less than $2,000, it is now over HK$20,000.
The Gini Coefficient, which quantifies wealth disparity, has soared: Hong Kong is one of the world’s least equal societies. The working and middle classes have been left behind.
This economic argument is widely accepted. What isn’t appreciated is how it relates to democracy and rights.
Rights exist to protect those at the bottom of the social heap. The wealthy, the connected and the powerful have the resources to defend themselves in pretty much any system; those without such resources need a system that is counterbalanced in their favour. Rights provide that balance.
Given the vast disparity between the haves and have-nots, and the sheer numbers of working and middle-class people who have seen their future eroded by ill-informed government policies, it is therefore entirely rational for them to favour rights.
There is a broad division of rights into legal rights, such as the right to a fair trial, and political rights such as the rights to freedom of speech and assembly. There is not much serious dispute on legal rights; even rich people who lose a case would rather have had a fair hearing. The controversial rights are political.
The most controversial is the right to vote. This, unfortunately, distracts from the central issue, which is not democracy, but representation. Representation matters because, as China’s 3,000 year experiment with dynasties and peasant rebellions shows, governments lose their mandate of heaven when they cease to represent the needs of the people.
It is ironic that China, while is not a democracy, has a more representative system of government than Hong Kong. From village committees upwards, the needs of the people get represented to government. The system is imperfect – any political system is – but the CCP does not operate in an informational vacuum.
Hong Kong has some of the forms of democracy, but the system of governance is not representative. Hence the rift: government policies are ill-informed of the interests of the working and middle classes because there is no means of re-presenting them to policymakers.
It is entirely rational that the working and middle classes want their interests represented to government: How else can they ensure they get a fair share?
Now let’s turn to the “indoctrinated”. The pro-establishment are far from indoctrinated; the current system got them where they are and, whether it’s money, prestige or a genuine conviction that China’s is a superior system, it is in their rational self-interest to preserve that system.
But that same rational self-interest means that the establishment’s interests are over-represented, and that over-representation has resulted in ill-informed policies – hence the current mess.
It is therefore not in the interests of the establishment to preserve the system. The system is broken, and the prosperity that came with it is at best on a short fuse and at worst illusory.
To fix the system, I suggest that rectifying some names would be a good start. “Brainwashed” and “indoctrinated” deny people their rational self-interest.
A 30-year-old in today’s world has at least another 50 years to live and, in the absence of systemic change, most will have no choice but to live out their lives at the bottom of the heap. It is entirely in their rational self-interest to want a system where their legitimate economic needs and expectations are buttressed by legal and political rights.
As to the establishment, which for the most part consists of people of my age (late 50s) and above, and who have done rather well, it is entirely rational for them to wish their remaining 30-odd years to be peaceful. That is not going to happen if the system doesn’t get fixed.
If Hong Kong is to come through this turmoil strengthened rather than crippled – and I believe the former is possible, even if some seem hell-bent on the latter – it will only do so when both camps acknowledge the legitimacy of each other’s claims.
Both camps are acting in their rational self-interest. The use of terms such as “brainwashed” and “indoctrinated” robs the other side of rationality, which in turn precludes dialogue. It is only through a dialogue between equals, who see the other as equals, that a peaceful solution can be found.
This is not a climb-down. Far from it. It is the act of a responsible government and a responsible populace.
Chris Maden runs a small IT business and is a consultant for central banks in developing countries. He writes fiction, non-fiction and blogs at chrismaden.com.