Legitimacy, wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is the key problem of political science.
Social contract theorists such as the French philosopher try to build legitimate government from the ground up. That ground zero, they call the state of nature. Hong Kong has become an empirical experiment in degeneration into that state.
Sadly, it's not the fabled peaceful anarchic Eden of noble savages imagined by Rousseau, but that of his far more pessimistic fellow social contract theorist, Thomas Hobbes. It's a state of civil war, of all against all, and tribe against tribe.
Eventually, desperate for a way out, they submit to what Hobbes calls "a sovereign" to impose order and to protect them. In the case of Hong Kong, that sovereign can only be China.
Hobbes didn't mean that people began like violent savages; rather they behave like them when society and institutions break down. That is when key institutions start losing legitimacy in the eyes of the people. How do you lose legitimacy? Quite simply, people stop trusting them - and then each other.
The most important of such institutions is, of course, the government. But its failure in Hong Kong is not the only one, only the most significant.
Here, we see vital institutions and their representatives lose public trust as one political side or its opposite considers them illegitimate. Eventually, people themselves start delegitimatising each other as fellow citizens or even human beings.
There are members of the legislature where the pan-democratic bloc openly incites rioters while the other side blindly follows an absentee government. There are police, once Asia's finest, now referred to as "dogs", "black cops" or "triads". ICAC, RTHK, MTR, MPF … a whole alphabet soup of institutions has been criticised and discredited over the years.
There are black-clad "pro-democracy" protesters, known as "cockroaches", many only too happy to harm those who disagree with them; the fourth estate, or "black hacks", who happily film away while innocent people are savaged, burned and killed.
There are university chiefs who pander to rioting students; barristers of the Bar Association who finger-wag about the rule of law when we are staring at general lawlessness; civil servants who secretly undermine government work …
Thoughtful people worry how Hong Kong's institutions can survive after 2047 when "one country, two systems" expires. They needn't worry; ours will have become so weak or non-existent the mainland will simply take over without worrying about a difficult institutional merger.
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