Suppose a man were, all of a sudden, to see a young child on the verge of falling into a well. He would certainly be moved to compassion… [“今人乍見孺子將入於井,皆有怵惕惻隱之心”, translation, D.C. Lau]

So pondered Mencius, two and half millennia ago. Seven months in, and Hong Kong’s slow-motion topple into the well remains unattended.

The government is nowhere to be seen, the Chinese Communist Party is ever more staunch in its support of the government’s complete absence of policies, and the Hong Kong Police, running short of frontline supporters to attack and when not advertising their incompetence by arresting their own undercover agents, have turned their attention on those – most recently the Spark Alliance Hong Kong – who offer support behind the scenes.

I doubt I am the only commentator who fears that knock on the door in the wee hours.

Mencius. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

Mencius used his example to argue that human nature is fundamentally good – or at least capable of good. From that premise, he suggests that we are all born with four cardinal virtues (or seeds, 端), as inherent to us as our limbs: benevolence, dutifulness, observance of the rites and wisdom (仁, 義, 禮 and 智 respectively).

I wonder if, rather than a continued insistence on the five demands on one side, and petulant intransigence on the other, Mencius’s insight can chart a course out of our morass.

I am not going to digress into the exact meaning and sense of the original: just as the last native speaker of Ancient Greek died with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the last native speaker of Classical Chinese died with the fall of the Ching Dynasty in 1912– and they were a rare enough breed then and for the better part of the preceding millennia. Rather, I’ll take the terms in their ordinary, everyday sense, and see where they lead us.

First, benevolence. The CCP and the Hong Kong Government both regard themselves as benevolent entities, framing benevolence almost entirely in economic terms. The five demands are notably absent of economics: benevolence is framed by the protestors in terms of rights. There seems little to bridge this abyss.

Dutifulness likewise hits a wall of disagreement: Duty to what? In the case of the CCP and HKG, duty is first and foremost the patriotic duty to the greater re-unified China. To many of Hong Kong’s global, cosmopolitan urbanites, duty is a more nuanced concept: in a quotidian sense, duty to one’s own family, one’s own immediate civic society; in an abstract sense, to concepts such as the rule of law, the separation of powers and – yes – to one’s nation.

The contradiction here is not so much the list of those to whom duty is owed, as the order: one is the diametric opposite of the other.

Xi Jinping. Photo: CGTN, screenshot.

The concept translated as “observance of rites” is slippery in modern Chinese. More colloquially it can also mean politeness (as in the Cantonese term for impolite, mo lai mau, 無禮貌). One thing we can all agree on is that rites have been noticeable by their absence.

And so we come to wisdom, the ability to distinguish right from wrong – an ability that both sides see lacking in the other, the CCP with its claimed monopoly on what qualifies as “truth” and being “correct,” and the protestors with truth defined in democratic terms.

So, the one thing both sides can agree on is that that other side is lacking in all four seeds of moral rectitude. Benevolence has the wrong objects, duty is to the wrong things, rites are not observed and each side decries the other as fools. It would seem that Mencius is a busted flush.

But Mencius also tells us “No man is devoid of a heart sensitive to the suffering of others.” On seeing the baby poised to fall, a man would be motivated to act, not because he wanted to get into the good graces of the baby’s parents or the villagers, or because the baby’s cries were offensive, but because of compassion.

And this surely, gives us an inroad. (The term used by Mencius, 怵惕惻隱之心, literally means “the heart which is aware of the obscure sadness.”)

Temple of Heaven in Beijing. File photo: Wikimedia commons.

First, the difference of views on benevolence can be framed in a way that is not the exclusively economic view of the HKG and CCP, nor yet the exclusively hard-core rights view of the protestors, but focused on wellbeing.

Wellbeing encompasses the material, political and spiritual; when all three obtain, a life is well-lived. Compassion suggests that we all would prefer to live a life well-lived, and want each other to do likewise, albeit in such a way as not to infringe on others’ lives well-lived.

Humans are dutiful creatures. We all owe duty to many entities – family, friends, nations and ideals. We have all, as individuals, faced circumstances when these duties conflict, when I have to withhold a debt due to a friend in order to pay the doctor of a family member, or to place the good of the nation over a cherished ideal – or vice versa.

To insist that any single order applies to all possible circumstances is void of compassion: the man to whom any one duty must always come first, no matter what the circumstances, is less than human.

Humans are also social creatures. Not only do all societies have rites and rituals; those rites and rituals are often constitutive of a society. This goes further than holding the door open; rites are an expression of compassion, of our respect for others as fellow humans, of our recognition that they may be suffering.

When that awareness is lost, rites become empty, form without substance, nothing more than ossified ritual. The rite that is most lacking in Hong Kong is that of reaching across the divide; of not letting pride stand in the way. Of humility.

As to wisdom, (the ability to distinguish that which is from that which is not, 是非之心 in the original), this is so often conjoined with compassion as to be meaningless in its absence. We humans are creatures of limited knowledge, limited means and a limited time on this earth.

My limited knowledge constrains my ability to obtain facts that distinguish right from wrong, my limited means constrains those rights and wrongs I can do something about and my limited time on this earth constrains the number of issues I have time to care about.

Any entity claiming an exclusivity on truth or correctness is divine; let us limit ourselves to the realm of the mortals.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

The protests in Hong Kong have been a microcosm of many forces at work in the world today. The polarisation evidenced in Brexit and exploited so ruthlessly by Trump is nothing compared to the situation into which Hong Kong has slid.

Families are riven by politics; I heard of a police officer who was barred by his own daughter from her wedding. There are even apps (such as Wolipay) that state which restaurants are yellow, blue or green.

Yet the CCP was founded on compassion, to right the wrongs of the social injustice in China. Carrie Lam and her team are nearly all Christians, a religion that professes to embody compassion. The people of Hong Kong, for all our many faults – and with a few glaring exceptions – have suffered together.

If we can turn that compassion into action, if we can agree that well-being encompasses all of us, that duties depend on circumstance, that rites enjoin respect and humility, and that wisdom lies in allowing for each other’s limitations as mortals, perhaps Asia’s World City can not only heal its own wounds, but be a beacon of hope for the rest of our divided world.

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Chris Maden

Chris Maden has lived and worked in Hong Kong since the late 1980s. When he is not busy being a busybody and writing short stories, novels and political musings, he runs his own business. He blogs at chrismaden.com.