HEAR THE PEOPLE SING, WITH HEART AND MIND: A RESPONSE TO YIFAN YE
By Yueran Zhang
Having no doubt about his sincere care for Hong Kong’s future, I commend Ye for providing a fresh, though provocative, perspective on the ongoing Occupy Central movement. Though it may invoke heartfelt anger or dismay from some readers, Ye’s argument should not be dismissed without meticulous, critical examination, which I will try to provide in this response.
From my understanding, Ye’s reasoning can be broken down into four logically related sub-arguments:
1. The policy framework that promoted and sustained Hong Kong’s prosperity in the past resulted from a technocratic and intellectual-driven governance structure with little participation from grassroots society.
2. Such policy framework and governance structure have not generated any serious socioeconomic trouble so far.
3. Only through such a policy framework and governance structure can Hong Kong secure a bright future for economic development. And,
4. Democratic reforms as advocated by the Occupy Central would significantly weaken the existing policy framework and governance structure. Ye’s conclusion that the Occupy Central movement is diametrical to Hong Kong’s “real” interests holds only if each of the four is true; in other words, the entire argument would be debunked if any of the sub-arguments fails critical examination.
Argument 2 is ostensibly a problematic one, as many would argue that widening social inequality and a lack of progress in social welfare provision have made life unbearably hard for not only the poor, but also the middle class in Hong Kong. Argument 3 also appears questionable, even on the surface level; one might wonder whether the policy framework and governance structure inherited from the past are still synonymous with guaranteed future economic success given that the economic climate faced by Hong Kong is drastically changing. Moreover, democracy is an end in and of itself that is not secondary to, or measured by, economic development. Nevertheless, it is Arguments 1 and 4 that I intend to devote more attention to examining.
Ye’s privileged assertion in Argument 1 that policy reforms in the past were “initiated by intellectuals with policy experience and clear, unified and justifiable objectives” does not agree with empirical facts. Since 1960s, Hong Kong’s policymaking - and particularly its social policies - has been deeply influenced by grassroots, insurgent social movements and not merely subject to the input of intellectuals, experts, and technocrats. The foundation of Hong Kong’s welfare state, including public housing provision, a nine-year compulsory education, public assistance scheme, and paid holidays were established in the 1970 thanks to a long line of protests and demonstrations by social movement organizations, including the highly militant and confrontational leftist riot of 1967. The government’s transparency practices which Ye enthusiastically praises also came into being after citizens pushed for such practices through collective action. As recently as 2013, the large-scale Dock Strike de facto transformed the government’s approach towards capital-labor disputes. Simply put, grassroots action initiated by ordinary people has been a pivotal force shaping Hong Kong’s policy framework and is inscribed into the very nature of Hong Kong’s political dynamics. Since public goods provision and transparency practices are what Ye regards as essential elements of the policy framework driving Hong Kong’s prosperity in its early decades, Ye’s denial of ordinary people’s indispensable contribution to making these policies is an insult to the citizens who fought so hard for a more just and more accountable Hong Kong. In light of this historical background, it should be immediately recognized that the Occupy Central movement is nothing other than an extension of the city's social tradition of engaging in policymaking through mass mobilization, which has been so effective for half a century. Given that the “people” have already been architects of Hong Kong’s previous policy framework, I advise any one to think twice before automatically assuming that the citizens participating in grassroots social movements such as the Occupy Central are stupid, ignorant, and irrational and without any idea of what is really good for themselves.
I also take issue with Argument 4, that democratic reforms would fundamentally undermine the institutional infrastructure which have shouldered Hong Kong’s economic blossom. Ye argues that if democratic reforms were implemented, the central bank and financial secretaries would have to“answer to politicians catering to public demand,” thus losing consistency in monetary policies. It is not clear to me why this is necessarily the case. In the United States, a relatively advanced democracy, key financial and market regulation agencies such as the Federal Reserve, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency are independent bodies composed of experts that do not answer to politicians within the government, let alone to electoral pressure. Legitimacy for these agencies to independently act on expertise is recognized by the general public and in many cases, actively promoted by politicians in the executive branch (though sometimes in order to elude their own responsibilities). Of course, decision-making in these agencies is not one hundred percent unaffected by public opinion, but such influence is very limited. In France, where democracy and technocracy have coexisted since the postwar period, certain policy areas are specifically designated as jurisdictions of experts and technocrats, with which electoral politics can rarely interfere. It is not very difficult to envision such a system in Hong Kong that makes clear demarcation between issues contestable by electoral politics while certain policymaking and regulation practices belong to independent, expertise-based institutions. No democratic society is democratic to the extent that every issue is to be decided by people’s will – there are always “checks and balances,” and there are always organizations designated to handle highly technical issues delegated to them with appropriate autonomy. It is unfounded to presume that decision-making on these highly technical issues would suddenly be easily swayed by public opinion just because of universal suffrage in electing the head of the executive branch.
Any truly informed opinion on the Occupy Central movement should be formed with both understanding and empathy (thus “heart”) with the participants’ point of view – how they make sense of Hong Kong and their life, what their rationales and logics are – and critical thinking based upon factual knowledge and rigorous logical reasoning (thus “mind”). Unfortunately, Ye’s piece possesses neither. On one hand, he puts forth an image of participants in the Occupy Central movement as naive, uninformed, irresponsible, and “spoiled,” without the slightest understanding of their perspective. On the other, as I have shown, he fails to recognize the logical holes in his argument. Without heart and mind, all we can hear is a cacophony from the crowd, rather than the true rhythm in people’s singing.
Yueran Zhang is a senior Sociology major at Duke University.