Hong Kong, my home, has seen better days. Protests, demonstrations, street violence, bomb plots, conspiracy theories of all shapes and colours, have shaken us all.
One side claims to fight for human rights and freedom, the other claims to fight for stability and order. I haven’t committed myself to either side despite the horrors of the last month or so, but here is what I make of it all:
We are, all of us, focusing on the wrong fight.
The protesters fight first and foremost for the withdrawal of the controversial extradition bill, but also for the perceived rights of those being prosecuted for their roles in the protests (‘no rioters’). Freedom of speech and universal suffrage are bandied about. And above all antipathy toward Beijing, ranging from suspicion to outright despair and desperate hatred for what they see as a tyrannical regime.
The police and their supporters fight for what they perceive as the stability of Hong Kong, the preservation of how things have been (and Hong Kong, for all its faults, has allowed a fairly comfortable lifestyle for the vast majority of its inhabitants). They see the protesters as at best busybodies and at worst anarchists provoking street violence and sedition.
I’ll say this: we should be fighting for the truth, the preservation of the truth – all our political ideas are just outgrowths of the truth.
Hear me out, this isn’t metaphysics. The enemy isn’t a political side, it’s any ideology or culture that suppresses the truth, and actively punishes those who tell it. Look at how untruth is poisoning our climate right now: what’s marred the protests so far is the perception that high-minded ideology is justification for something else (general resentment of the system, despair at the housing market, a runaway martyr complex), and the iron insistence that protests (NO NOT RIOTS!) have been peaceful so far, despite quite a lot of evidence suggesting otherwise. The police’s reputation is in tatters not only because of the violence they’ve used, but moreover because of the iron insistence that there was no violence, or that if there was, it was justified (despite many videos suggesting otherwise) – not to mention evidence of police collusion in the recent Yuen Long attacks, again faced with flat out denial. And of course there is the miasma of fake news, much of it generated across the border, though some of it homegrown.
But a mutual appreciation of the truth can tell us what is going on, lets us lay out our cards, lets us talk. Without it we don’t talk, we suspect the worst, we fight. But the good things grow out from truth. Love of truth, knowledge of human frailty, is what gives us our best political ideas. Free speech grows out from there – we tell the truth because we know truth is truth, it’s not what we make of it, it’s not what we can control; so do ideas like universal suffrage – love of truth means knowing the benefits of a wide franchise, because the truth is that no matter how wise your king or your oligarchs or your politicians, they are not infallible, and they do need help, as well as checks on their foolishness and incapacity. Systems and societies that treasure the truth will hopefully build wealth based on accurate economic appraisal, will minimise resentment (and hopefully move toward stability) if those in power not only appreciate the truth of poverty, but appreciate the truth that exploitative economic policies are harmful in the long run.
And look across the border – much that is loathsome about the regime is its denial of the importance of the truth. For them the truth is not – for lack of a better word – sacred, it is malleable, it serves expedience and gain. Hence the strident denials of the events of 1989 (or more lately, their horror), hence the laughably transparent attempts at disguising the truth of the protest movement (TWO MILLION PROTESTERS MARCHING IN FAVOUR OF THE BILL! LOOK AT THOSE HORRIBLE BLACK SHIRTS PROVOKING TROUBLE IN YUEN LONG TO BE MET WITH RIGHTEOUS WHITE SHIRT RETALIATION!). Out of this sustained contempt for the truth grows all the excesses we stereotypically associate with the regime and the society it creates: corruption, a contempt for human rights (a person is not sacred, he is whatever we say he is), curtailing of free speech, and notable dishonesty in society – but why should the average person be honest up there? In a society where speaking the truth meets with active punishment, why be truthful? Hence the maimed girls lying on the road while cars zoom by, hence the languishing kilo-tons of counterfeit medicine and milk powder.
Or do we need more examples from history? I’ve taught about the Great Leap Foward for five years now, and I find it highly suspicious that Hong Kong textbooks insist that backyard furnaces were what starved millions to death. Or was it in fact the rampant overreporting of grain output figures from 1958 to 1960, resulting in lethally high government requisition rates? Or how about the production quotas handed down from the central government, each of them met with an attempt at one-upmanship from successively lower-level cadres who received the figures (‘No problem boss, in fact let me do you one better!’), till the peasants were handed an impossible grain quota – but who were they to say no to the Party? So of course the answer was ‘yes boss’.
And so more than 15 million people starved to death. Because no one in the whole country dared tell each other the truth (at one point the substandard output of the backyard furnaces was to be shown to the top cadres, only to be shooed away at the last minute).
Or how about the old Soviet joke: ‘They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work’? Or that nobody could be honest for fear of the gulags? Or the fact that the Nazi leadership was plagued by infighting and constant attempts at hoodwinking the senior leadership – not to mention the regime’s complete contempt for the truth that human life is sacred.
Jesus insists in the Gospel of John that the truth sets you free. This is not metaphysics (though Christians do believe that the truth is not just an idea, but a person, namely Jesus) – the truth, and a respect for the truth, is absolutely necessary. Chaos, anarchy, tyranny grow out of contempt for truth – slowly at first, but snowballing before too long.
The truth is what we as Hong Kongers should be fighting for; not the fruits of truth – we shouldn’t fetishise and idolise the flowers over the roots. That can lead to its own sort of tyranny and chaos, and we’re already seeing that unfold on the streets. And above all we have ample evidence of what contempt for truth must lead to.
We need to start telling each other the truth again. We need to make sure our systems and societies don’t actively punish people who act and speak truthfully. No more covering our asses, no more manipulating reality to be what we want it to be. Owning up honestly to our mistakes, owning up to the fact that we can and do make mistakes. And remembering that we don’t fight for and against political ideas, because the fight goes so much deeper down than that.
The fight for truth might just be what gets us out of this mess.