kenny hodgart


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Ugly populism is not an argument against democracy

This post can also be read at SCMP.COM

The beacon light on the shining city on the hill is guttering. The barbarians are at the gate and the fox is in the henhouse. The worm, you may be assured, has scoffed the apple. Ladies and gents, American democracy is being exposed for a sham by an absurd buffoon who looks like a character from the funny papers. The mot du jour is dysfunctionality, and dysfunctionality is afflicting all known institutions grievously – but some (political parties, the electoral process) more than others. With the rise of Donald Trump, we have reached the inevitable end-point of politics’ showbusiness vajazzling. America’s Got Talent but it’s being offered a preening, pelt-haired Tony Soprano instead and if it’s repulsed it’s also enamoured.

I offer my apologies. Words along these lines are in over-supply right now – as likely to be voiced by disbelieving American conservatives as by liberals, by people with a dog in the fight as by despairing onlookers in other parts of the world. It’s almost as though Trump’s detractors have begun to echo and amplify the nihilism of his message. Millions of Americans, it is understood, have lost faith: in government, in political parties, in big business, in the media. Trump exploits this loss of faith to build a following. Trump-watchers respond that this following is further proof of the loss of faith, and of the dysfunctionality of the system – of the parties’ inertia, of a debased campaign financing model, of the remaking of politics as a reality gameshow. Others look at his followers and blame the situation on their stupidity and susceptibility. Either way, if you believe many parts of the commentariat, it’s democracy itself that is kaput.

This is a negative message for Americans to consume. For folks in places around the world where democracy does not exist it is all the more depressing. Indeed, the only people likely to take any solace from it are those who consider democracy a virus anyway. People like the Chinese Communist Party and its friends. Look, they might say of the world’s most hubristic polity – democracy is a mass of contradictions that offers only the illusion of freedom. Institutions are at the mercy of big money, Congress is gridlocked, mob violence attends public rallies and demagoguery is cutting through. In such an analysis, radical populist movements – whether in America or in Hong Kong, where we have a growing “localist” faction that’s driven in part by anger at the city’s “mainlandisation” and a failure to address blue-collar concerns – are warnings against disrupting the corporatist status quo.

There’s little doubt that Trump is garnering support not only for the populism of his message but also for his abandonment of the normal rules of civility – those are for the establishment “schmucks” on all sides who’ve propagated a system of top-down technocracy. Flat-footing his opponents by being provocative and boorish has played well with large constituencies of voters who are tired of party automatons. Other candidates gotta serve somebody – big pharma, Wall Street; The Donald’s personal wealth allows him to make a virtue of serving only himself. His anti-establishment credentials thus defined, he has eschewed consistency. Who knows what a Trump presidency might have in store for the world? His instincts seem not only protectionist but isolationist. He thinks America gets a raw deal as the world’s policeman. On the other hand, he wants to “rebuild” its military, and he wants to “beat” China, Mexico, Russia and Iran. If there’s a unifying message, it might be that the rest of the world can go to hell.

Trump also believes in torture, mass deportations and banning certain monotheistic types not of a Judaeo-Christian persuasion. The man most likely to gain the Republican Party presidential nomination is an authoritarian oaf. Does this invalidate democracy? No, it does not. Not in any real sense. Authoritarian thugs can be voted in; in democracies they can also be voted out. Meanwhile, the United States Constitution enshrines checks on the executive branch of government. That hoariest of Winston Churchill quotes serves: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In a more pragmatic sense, a Trump candidacy, while representing a nadir, may actually be good for the GOP: it may cause it to fracture, but the healing process would surely return it to a more centrist, consensus-building course. Already, the Trump enema has convinced some conservative thinkers that what’s required is to develop more policies that appeal to working people. Moreover, if – as pollsters anticipate – Hillary Clinton wins a two-way race against Trump in November, she could end up with a uniquely bi-partisan mandate.

To those who despair, or gloat, at the state of U.S. democracy, however, one need only point out one abiding characteristic of it to sustain a more romantic view. If millions of Americans have “lost faith” in politics, then millions of others do not appear at all cynical about the enterprise (and it’s true that both Trump and his leftist counterpart in the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders, have brought entirely new groups of voters into the process). A passion for voting and elections has been a feature of American civil society since at least the 1830s, when the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville exclaimed on it in his classic book Democracy in America. A little further back, Aristotle defined man as a political animal (zoon politikon) with an innate need to debate questions of justice and the common good. Sometimes this gives rise to expressions of humanity’s uglier nature. But no, democracy itself is not the virus.


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If Scotland ‘could’ make it alone, what about Hong Kong?

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

http://www.scmp.com/comment/blogs/article/1815637/if-scotland-could-make-it-her-own-what-about-hong-kong

In the long campaign that culminated with Scotland rejecting independence from the UK in a referendum last September, pro-Union politicians are held to have “gone negative”. Be that as it may (and hey, look, it’s a hard task making “No” sound positive), many of those same politicians – including British Prime Minister David Cameron – were frequently to be heard conceding that “of course Scotland could make it on her own” if she opted to.

Beyond population size, Scotland and Hong Kong aren’t closely comparable. What’s more, the idea of independence remains a somewhat specialised interest in Hong Kong in a way that it is no longer in Scotland. But still – try to imagine, just for a moment, the words “of course Hong Kong could make it on her own” sally from the mouth of any mainstream Hong Kong politician, pro-establishment or pan-democrat, let alone from the country’s actual head of government. Cannot? Fair enough – at times, that little word seems to wear well as the SAR’s unofficial motto.

It’s hard to say which goes first: aversion to the question or pessimism about the outlook for Hong Kong if it could somehow reject the first bit of “one country, two systems”. Equally hard is to discern whether those fears are more or less potent than the ones attendant on Hong Kong’s de facto assimilation into mainland China. Whatever, it’s not a discussion that is generally had without the shutters coming down. Without “preferential treatment” from the mainland, goes the coup de grace, Hong Kong would cease to benefit from its rise. Food supplies, water, energy, employment: all would be at risk. Uncoupled, we’d be isolated, bereft, screwed.

It may be a minor point of detail, but few of these contentions are cut-and-dried. “[In the unlikely event of Hong Kong declaring independence] I am not worried about food and water,” HKUST economist Carsten Holz’s tells me. “Food can be imported from anywhere in the world – anything that comes by container costs pretty much the same, no matter from where it comes. Water can be gained from the ocean.”

In terms of food, one might consider an end to import monopolies (Ng Fung Hong, anyone?) to be an economic good in itself. Reports also indicate Hong Kong pays way over the odds for the water it gets from the Dongjiang River and could better utilise what it collects in its own reservoirs. Meanwhile, on energy, there are cross-border power flows to meet supply shortages both ways, meaning that Hong Kong frequently exports electricity to Guangdong.

If you need a model for how these resource issues might be handled more efficiently by an independent Hong Kong, just consider that most solvent of Asian city-states, Singapore. Over the years the Lion City has drastically reduced its reliance on Malaysia through expanding its portfolio of LNG suppliers, pioneering urban agriculture and investing in water recycling, freshwater reservoirs and desalination.

The likely fate of Hong Kong’s financial industry is another matter. The sector is a huge beneficiary of the yuan’s internationalisation, of so-called dim sum bond trading, and of companies investing here in China-listed shares. The official rhetoric during the Occupy protests was that, if it came to it, Hong Kong could simply be bypassed in favour of other financial centres, whether off-shore or in China itself. The question begged is why that’s not happening already.

Instead, Chinese companies continue to raise far more in Hong Kong IPOs than they do on the mainland’s own exchanges. Most finance people will tell you that for all the veiled threats, the mainland still depends on Hong Kong for investment in and out just as much as Hong Kong depends on those same money flows. Hongkongers may be wary of Hong Kong becoming “just another Chinese city”, but the fact that it’s not – that it offers a stable investment environment, the rule of law and enforceable regulations – is what attracts foreign companies. Like Rabelais’ Gargantua waltzing a Chihuahua, the two sides dance around these issues.

For Holz, the big “unknown” is employment. “Much would depend on the mainland regime’s response to Hong Kong declaring independence,” he says. “If it blocked all ties, there would be an immediate and probably severe impact on employment in Hong Kong.” But, he adds: “I am not sure there would be such a drastic response as I suspect that many leading individuals in the regime have private interests in Hong Kong.”

Up until recently, any putative independence movement seemed little more than a straw man for official mouthpieces intent on promoting Article 23 sedition legislation. Such intent has, however, given grist to the mill of a growing “localism”. As we have seen with regard to the June 4 commemorations this year, younger pro-democracy activists question the point of championing democracy for mainland China when efforts in that direction have achieved so little to date. For many living in a city where mainland money has helped push property and business rental prices to breaking point,“one country, two systems” begins to look more and more like a forced marriage.

As recently as Sunday, Beijing’s man, Basic Law Committee chairman Li Fei, made it clear it is almost as pointless to agitate for democratic rights in Hong Kong itself. Paving the way for Hong Kong to elect leaders who do not owe their mandate entirely to Beijing could not be tolerated, he acknowledged, as this would be to assent to Hong Kong evolving as a separate political entity. In that sense, concessions on electoral reform might be likened to devolution, which in Britain was meant to settle questions of political legitimacy but instead freed the constitutional genie from its bottle. To mix the metaphor somewhat, that bottle is still being shaken up – as Beijing is likely to have observed.

“The idea of independence is like narcotics,” was Exco member Arthur Li Kwok-cheung’s warning on the subject in March. Narcotics can be harmful, of course, but sometimes liberating too. They also tend to be illegal. Talk of independence isn’t, yet. It may be the unlikeliest of outcomes for Hong Kong – but that doesn’t mean the city shouldn’t have its eyes fully open to what it might mean.