Nobody could say that 2016 has been a dull year in politics. November alone has seen two major incidents: the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and the disqualification of two members of the Hong Kong assembly over an oath sworn in a manner that Beijing considers to be insulting to China. The latter might seem, at first glance, a rather smaller affair than the first. But they both speak to wider dilemmas gripping politics across the world.
The first is the erosion of the liberal order that has underpinned the world since 1945. The second is the increasing inability of societies, democratic or authoritarian, to create a shared domestic consensus at a time of economic stagnation.
There is huge anger at the failure of governments to distribute the products of growth equitably and this has led to a severe assault on political establishments around the world. In June, Britain voted for Brexit, the decision to leave the EU. Although a number of factors lay behind the vote, there seems little doubt that popular resentment against immigration was one reason, and xenophobic attacks on foreigners have increased in the aftermath of the vote.
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Last Tuesday, US voters who felt that they had been left behind by globalisation voted in enormous numbers for a candidate who assured them that a wall to keep out Mexicans and a law to keep out Muslims might make them feel better. The past two years have seen the growing economic malaise in Hong Kong fuel anger against mainland China. The Occupy movement of 2014 and the election of candidates sceptical or downright opposed to Beijing in this year’s elections were in part a reaction to a sluggish economy, with protestors complaining that if China would not provide greater prosperity, at least it could support more a more liberal politics.
The one thing that seems certain is that right now, neither the American nor Hong Kong solution promise a stable and sustainable new model.
The decision by Beijing to interpret the Basic Law to disqualify elected assembly members has something in common with Trump’s stated view of presidential power. By using legal and constitutional means to achieve its aims, rather than force, the central government can maintain its position that Hong Kong’s framework of law remains intact even while Beijing gets what it wants. One can expect that Donald Trump will choose a Supreme Court justice, no doubt eagerly backed by a Republican-dominated Congress, who will make it clear that the president’s wishes should be supported rather than questioned by the highest US legal authority.
The politicisation of the US Supreme Court has been a long process, but the combination of a president who pays little attention to the separation of powers, along with one-party dominance of the entire national political system, brings the American situation just a little closer to that in Hong Kong. Of course there are hugely significant differences in the US: a much larger and freer media and the chance of a reversal in the midterm elections of 2018 if Trump does badly (as first-term presidents tend to do). But while the distance between the two systems is still huge (or “yuuge” as the president-elect would have it), the direction of travel is toward a convergence than could scarcely have been imagined just a few years ago.
Both systems seem closer to a midpoint that is semi-liberal at best; with the framework of law, but the use of legal instruments to cut off debate awkward for the authorities. Trump has expressed displeasure with the US First Amendment on free speech and has hinted at suing or silencing his critics. It will be vital to Hong Kong’s freedom that any revision of Article 23 of the Basic Law does not send it in a Trumpian direction.
Donald Trump’s rise in America is a cautionary tale for democracy seekers in Hong Kong to go slow — and get things right
In addition, both systems are using short-term tactics to deal with a long-term problem. When historians in years to come analyse Trump’s election as perhaps the most important political phenomenon of the twenty-first century, they will point to the unsustainability of the US economic model as one of the key reasons for the anger that put “The Donald” in the White House.
They will do the same in their analysis of the political uncertainty surrounding Hong Kong in the same era. Hong Kong has still not managed to provide a vision that combines the politics of economics and identity to inspire the younger generation and give hope to those left behind by ever-growing inequality. It’s not surprising that Beijing, with its own set of anxieties over secessionist tendencies elsewhere in China, bridles at any talk of Hong Kong independence.
But it has failed, so far, to address the economic discontent that has fuelled anger in wider society over the past few years, and which has led to ever-more confrontational political demands. The Trump ascendancy and the Brexit vote in Britain show that economic growth is not enough.
Unequal distribution of the fruits of growth create resentment that emerge not in a desire for technocratic change, but the often raw and angry politics of identity. In societies such as the US and Britain, where liberals are perceived (often wrongly) to be in charge, this has led to a right-wing backlash. In Hong Kong, the opposition is more liberal in its self-definition but few doubt that it is the central government that control the system.
The United States has taken an extraordinary step in electing Trump, a step that could do severe damage to the norms and values that have made the US, despite its flaws, such an important beacon to the wider world. Hong Kong is a long way from such a precipice. But the time is clearly ripe to think about a new politics that can acknowledge the reality that Hong Kong is a globalised city within China with greater concern for its own very special political identity and priorities. That’s surely something that might gain consensus on all sides.
Rana Mitter is director of the University China Centre at the University of Oxford and author of A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World and China’s War with Japan, 1937-45: The Struggle for Survival