What Hong Kong's crisis and Britain's Brexit woes have in common

South China Morning Post Dipublikasikan 04.10, 21/10/2019
What Hong Kong's crisis and Britain's Brexit woes have in common

The BBC breaking news report on Saturday was depressingly familiar: "A state of emergency has been declared … after protests sparked by increased metro tickets turned violent.

"Protesters - many of them high school and university students - jumped turnstiles, attacked several underground stations, started fires and blocked traffic, leaving widespread damage across the city and thousands of commuters without transport.

"Television pictures showed protesters throwing stones, attacking police vehicles and burning at least one bus. Anti-riot police used tear gas and batons against some protesters, who have been demonstrating for days … The unrest exposes divisions in the (city), one of the (region's) wealthiest but also one of its most unequal. There have been growing complaints about the cost of living … and calls for economic reforms."

No, not Hong Kong, but Santiago in Chile, where I have to fly to in two weeks for the Apec leaders' meetings on Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.

There is little comfort in discovering that Hong Kong is not alone, but it is perhaps important to recognise that Hong Kong's months of steadily escalating violence may not be entirely due to the bewildering incompetence of our administration.

It may in part be driven by wider and more profound global challenges, with their roots in the extreme inequalities that have emerged over the past three decades of strong global growth, during which most of the gains have cascaded into the pockets of the lucky 0.1 per cent elite. It may also in part be due to the unintended and unanticipated consequences of the radical "quantitative easing" measures introduced after the global financial crash of 2008, measures that have brought interest rates close to zero, immiserating anyone with cash savings or pensions, and enriching those luckily endowed with assets - mainly property and equities.

Thoughts that Hong Kong is not alone in its unresolved and self-inflicted suffering have also been echoed and magnified in London over the weekend as we watch the British government struggle in vain to bring closure to its three-year Brexit debate. The similarities between Brexit and our own self-inflicted crisis are stronger and more meaningful than many recognise - and if it takes us in Hong Kong as long to find resolution, heaven help our community and our economy.

I see at least eight common factors shared by Britain in its civil war over Brexit, and Hong Kong and its civil war over the nature of its relationship with mainland China.

First, we have a profoundly divided community, with no easy path towards reducing divisions. For Britain, it is a division between the old, the rural, and passionate nationalists on the one hand, and the young, the urban and middle-class professionals on the other. For Hong Kong, it is a division between the young, Christians, anti-communists and the struggling poor on the one hand, and between patriots and the rich propertied elite on the other. In Hong Kong, the absence of any trusted democratic mechanisms that might mitigate these divisions has allowed divisions to deepen and fester.

On each side of the divide, views diverge on a single iconic "malignant" force - in Hong Kong, it is China, and for Britain, it is a distant, indifferent, bureaucratic Brussels.

Both crises involve a single fatal political misstep. In Hong Kong, it was Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's unfathomable error in deciding to stuff a politically and emotionally unacceptable extradition bill down the gullets of a reasonably anxious Hong Kong public. In the United Kingdom, it was former prime minister David Cameron's idiotic decision to deal "once and for all" with the bothersome Brexiteers at the extreme marginal right of his Conservative Party. Both Lam and Cameron made catastrophic misjudgments based on fundamental misunderstandings about the mood in their communities at the time.

Both errors have created political civil war, which will permanently change the shape of politics in both economies, with neither yet able to predict with any clarity what the future shape is likely to be.

Both errors have inflicted massive economic harm. There is still a chance that if, by some miracle, we can in Hong Kong speedily resolve the violence, the harm may be short-lived. But in the UK, whatever the outcome of the Brexit debate, deep and potentially permanent harm has been inflicted. The government's own analysts foresee a fall of up to 6 per cent in gross domestic product growth, with ongoing harm for much of the coming decade.

Both errors have jeopardised our single most important economic relationship - for Hong Kong, with China, and in particular, in our opportunity to build and shape the Greater Bay Area; for the UK, with Europe, as economic relationships built over almost 40 years have to be unravelled and restructured.

Both errors have crippled the government's capacity to address any other issues, no matter how pressing. For Hong Kong, this paralysis has so far crippled us for just five months, but it makes moot how speedily or effectively any of last week's policy-address promises can be put into effect. For the UK, this paralysis is now in its third year, with serious bread-and-butter challenges in urgent need of attention - ranging from health system reform, education reform and elderly care.

Both crises have unveiled deep-seated problems in how a democracy should function. For Hong Kong, the "rotten borough" legislative system concocted by Beijing and Britain's foreign office in a shared effort to avoid unleashing unfettered democratic forces across the community has come to haunt Hong Kong's political climate. Each had their own reasons - Britain is anxious to prevent Hong Kong's pro-China activists from steamrollering the political process, while Beijing is anxious about encouraging political freedoms and expectations that might in due course become shared across the mainland.

Whatever their motives, they have created a political monster that has become almost inoperable. Significant political change must be inevitable in Hong Kong if the past summer's strife is to be put behind us.

For Britain, Brexit has pitched parliament and parliamentary democracy against the people, after the misjudged decision to use a crude referendum to make a political and constitutional decision of massive importance.

Finally, these two crises present fundamental challenges that will be difficult to resolve or heal, and which may already have inflicted deep, permanent and debilitating scars. The most sobering lesson of all is how seemingly small and insignificant problems can explode to create unimaginable harm. The Brexit lesson for us in Hong Kong is that such genies are fiendishly difficult to put back in the bottle.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view

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