International virus reaches Hong Kong; infects politics

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A malignant virus that infects global politics is threatening Hong Kong. Customs, the Health Department and the FEHD can’t help us. The media and political class are our only hope.

A political virus infects world politics and now threatens Hong Kong. The symptoms are subtle at first, but if untreated, the disease spreads like syphilis, boring holes in the brain to induce madness. We vaccinate through education, but mutations neutralise old medicines and it is up to Hong Kong’s political class and the media to prevent contagion and to cure the disease when it strikes.

In an election year in Hong Kong we are particularly vulnerable to this ailment. Around the globe, the new virus, like brain damaging Zika, spreads. Politicians have found political success by peddling blatant lies, xenophobia and economic gobbledygook. In many cases, the learned use logic and evidence to counter the spread of this contagious lunacy – but to no good effect.

This is the year Hong Kong needs intelligent discourse the most.

The Trump in thine own eye

People around the world can see the falsehoods in Trump’s comments about their countries. Mexicans know they will not pay for a wall on the US border, the Chinese scoff at the idea of America stopping Chinese goods from coming in, and Hongkongers know Trump didn’t get the best of “Chinese” businessmen. They were Hongkongers and they beat him in court.

But people have built, over time, contempt for their own elites. They are deeply unsatisfied with politics as usual and the tired old politicians. This makes them more open to demagogues.

Austria, France and other European nations have powerful far right movements and Greece, Spain and others have their far left movements. The problem isn’t with the lunatic fringe being a fringe. The problem is mainstream politicians have seen demagogue success and have either chosen to imitate it to build a voter base or felt compelled to follow them, playing defence. This is how the virus spreads.

Local infections on the rise

They are tempted… to go for broke on the crazy scale.

In Hong Kong, new challengers look at the success of radicals around the world for whom deploying falsehood with wild abandon seems to be no impediment to building a political base. In order to get noticed in a noisy season, they are tempted, often without reluctance, to go for broke on the crazy scale to secure the niche they need to cross a political threshold to make the evening news or even get into Legco.

Woe betide the real victims of this spreading madness: economic logic, select ethnic groups and totemic companies. For example, Trump’s xenophobia about M&M newcomers (Muslims and Mexicans) finds an echo in the demonisation of our new II’s. In the 1990’s, “II’s” were illegal immigrants from China. Now pro-establishment politicians raise the spectre of illegal immigration from the subcontinent (India, Pakistan and the neighbourhood), sounding the dog whistle for those inclined to discriminate against all non-Han locals of Hong Kong. Fortunately, our top level politicians, including Carrie Lam, have resisted the spread of this virus through admirable and public commitment.

On the economic front though, it is becoming harder for some to resist the siren call of populism.

Deploying falsehood with wild abandon seems to be no impediment to building a political base.

Lacking logic, look to LINK

Link Asset Management is a company like any other in Hong Kong but for its size and history. Unfortunately, it is routinely used as a whipping boy for district level politicians trying to make a name for themselves. Defying the logic of happy customers and repeat business, critics in an election year claim the jolly masses are somehow wrong and unhappy, even though they keep coming back for more at Link shopping malls. The firm was privatised over a decade ago yet still gets held to a fuzzy standard applied to no other private operator in Hong Kong. It’s an easy target for those not bound to using logic and held to account for their words.

In a recent episode of RTHK3’s BackChat, only one person, Link CEO George Hongchoy, is regularly held accountable for his words. As a listed company, falsehood or even honest error could be cause for legal action or serious repercussions from the SFC. By contrast, scrappy district councilors and self-appointed crusaders can criticise with neither accuracy nor repercussions.  They don’t even have to have a goal, just point a finger and say “bad”.

But when those with real power step in, it shows the disease is spreading. Carrie Lam recently connected Link to the MTR (majority government owned) and the MPF (government imposed and regulated) as the “three mountains” she would tackle in the future (suggesting a walkback from previous statements on retirement). The latter of two are controlled by the government through shareholding and regulation, respectively. But Link Asset Management is a private company whose shares are widely held by Hongkongers. Targeting it through political agitation is wrongheaded populism. If there was a contract violated and legal leg to stand on, feel free to lawyer up. But no such legal argument exists or the lawyers would be hot on the case.

Hong Kong pays a price

In the short term, the corporate world takes a beating. But when investors look to Hong Kong and see the turning of the political mood, a Sanders or Trumpesque economic tide rising, they will be repelled, leaving us with a smaller number of conglomerates opening stores and running real estate. Highly politicised environments favour incumbents and deter new players who would make our economy more competitive, provide more consumer choice and provide higher quality job opportunities. Those with access to higher political muscle, say in Beijing, would probably be more comfortable, while international investors would bleed out of Hong Kong.

This is the year Hong Kong needs intelligent discourse the most, when we will make choices that drive our future to 2047 and beyond. But the virus of demagoguery is spreading and it is up to the media and political class to not fall victim to the temptation to take on the the arguments of the economically illiterate or those spreading falsehoods. Our political elites must vigourously make the case for sensible policy, not act on  the temptation of a quick hit that fans the flames of misunderstanding. They must be well-briefed and ready for a professional media that is energetically sceptical and similarly well-briefed. It is a high standard that we must continue to work towards if we are to protect Hong Kong from this political virus and elevate our political discourse.

Those with access to higher political muscle, say in Beijing, would probably be more comfortable, while international investors would flee Hong Kong.