Richard Cullen：Hong Kong doesn’t need sermons from a ‘failed state’
Recently reported remarks by the US consul general in Hong Kong, Michael Hanscom Smith, stressed that business confidence in the special administrative region, may “continue to erode”. The National Security Law (NSL) for Hong Kong was vigorously cast, in this discussion, in a negative light.
Indistinct, hypothesized risks were mentioned to try to put wind in the sails of yet another bout of Sinophobic grooming designed to generate alarm.
Let us move, however, from these impressionistic risks to consider some specific rights abuses. By October 2019, all normal teaching at the University of Hong Kong was comprehensively shut down. Many mainland students had to flee across the border from Hong Kong in fear of their safety. It was unsafe for most staff to return to work for an extended period. The destruction across the campus was staggeringly grim. The lifts to the new HKU MTR station were systematically vandalized. It took months to repair them, at great cost, and restore MTR access. For week after week, as a direct result of the intensely violent “black shirt” insurrection, we watched rights related to academic freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom from fear being methodically crushed. And the University of Hong Kong got off lightly compared to the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
It is true that the NSL has effected a radical change to the constitutional architecture of the SAR. But its introduction played a fundamental role in restoring and protecting the sort of rights, just noted, which were placed under egregious continuing attack during the insurrection. It was during the course of that fearsome, extended period of political rioting that Hong Kong’s prized rule of law was more gravely threatened than at any time during the previous 50 years.
The mainstream Western media steamroller is adamant (and correct) in claiming that the violent, but comparatively brief, seven-hour attack on the US Capitol building on Jan 6, 2021, was a four-alarm insurrection. Meanwhile, the devastating Hong Kong insurgency, which ran for well over seven months, is still continuously recast in the West, led by the US, as a period of pro-democracy protests beset by police suppression. Violence is mentioned fitfully, if at all, and habitually then qualified as understandable and limited. This level of active duplicity has simply become standard operating practice.
Another well-regarded American commentator with strong Hong Kong connections, TaraJoseph, also lately noted that Hong Kong’s robust institutional infrastructure was not yet falling apart but then wondered “how long can that golden goose remain untouched” given that “there is a huge amount of risk now”.
Highlighting the risk of institutional malfunction is thought-provoking. In fact, it presents us with a reminder of the value of looking further afield.
At about the same time as these prominent American pundits were advising Hong Kong on where systemic risks lay in the SAR, a highly respected observer delivered a series of acute reflections on where the US finds itself today. The Australian intellectual Phillip Adams has been offering penetrating political commentary for well over 50 years across the print and broadcast media. He has been the recipient of a wide range of significant public awards during his career. In a succinct recent column, he concluded that the US is now a failed state. He advanced a lucid argument covering the period from the creation of the US to the present day. What was once a “magic republic”, Adams says, survived and thrived after many grim experiences, including reliance on slavery, a horrific civil war, segregation, massive levels of gun violence and corrosive inequalities, as it established itself, by a wide margin, as the world’s paramount superpower. Now, however, still incomparably armed to the teeth, the world looks on at the US, says Adams, in “disbelief and fascinated horror” as its core institutional strengths deteriorate alarmingly.
Interestingly, this column was carried in one of the flagship newspapers of the Murdoch media empire. This immensely influential, global media group has otherwise typically been steadfast, for many years, in its support of the US project to retain America as the global director that dominantly sets down and applies what is often referred to as the rules-based international order.
Soon after, in another Murdoch paper, Henry Kissinger observed with alarm how a bust of perhaps America’s most acclaimed leader, Abraham Lincoln, and a plaque of his remarkable Gettysburg Address were removed from a library at Cornell University after a complaint. Kissinger concluded that it was important that those persons making up society in the US “have some confidence in each other”. In particular, “they should not believe they’re in mortal conflict all the time with a significant element of the society”.
In brief, the “Disneyfied” sanitation of the major insurgency that unfolded from mid-2019 in Hong Kong was never valid and it is now long past any sort of marketing, use-by-date. It should be put aside. Moreover, America’s habitual censuring impulse needs to be significantly redirected. It should be inwardly refocused in order to try to locate remedies for the grave disputes arising from the dangerous intensity of political divergence within the US.
To be honest, these recalibrations are not going to happen. They are both too hard and too sensible to be considered within a US now so dominated by a fundamentally resentful view of the future. We can, thus, remain confident of receiving continuing, unsolicited, defectively grounded advice on how to govern Hong Kong from an America that is grappling with a frightening level of polarized, internal disputation about how the US itself should be governed.
This article represents the view of the author only.
The author is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Law of the University of Hong Kong.