Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday, 8 September 2020


Brave New Words Hint at a Less Democratic Future

From Hong Kong to Poland to the U.S., there's a pickup in the markers of authoritarian language.

Carrie Lam has gone from calling opponents “spoiled children” to “enemies of the people.”
Carrie Lam has gone from calling opponents “spoiled children” to “enemies of the people.” Photographer: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

In politics, language is a reliable indicator of the direction of travel. Today, rhetoric from the Republican Party convention in the U.S. to India, and from Poland to Brazil, points away from liberal democracy. The change has rarely been swifter than in Hong Kong.

The markers of autocratic speech are globally apparent. There’s the divisive “us versus them” rhetoric, the ad hominem attacks, the inflammatory comments on dissenters and the fetishization of law and order, feeding on popular insecurities. There’s the personalization of politics. There is also, increasingly, the willingness to disregard fact. It’s in President Donald Trump’s convention speech — say, that the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem cost “less than $500,000” when the move will come to many  times that —  but it’s elsewhere, too. In Hong Kong, police advanced an alternative account of one of the most well-documented attacks of the 2019 protests, despite video evidence, eye-witness accounts and even the police's own testimony to an inquiry.

An autocratic system doesn’t require the population to believe its leaders. It only requires them to believe nothing at all. Truth itself becomes debatable.

The underlying trend is well documented, and global. Research carried out by political scientists at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden suggests that in 2019, for the first time since 2001, democratic states and territories were no longer in the majority. There are more protest movements, most recently in Belarus, but for now more than a third of us live in nations that are becoming more autocratic; just 8% of the world’s population live in regimes going in the opposite direction. 

The rhetoric is keeping up with the times in Hong Kong.

Government communiques in the former British colony used to be dry, factual and understated, a practice that continued after the 1997 handover to China. Even during the Occupy sit-in that paralyzed much of the central business district for over two months in 2014, official statements remained relatively sober. What remained of the technocratic language, though, has since disappeared fast.

Early in the 2019 demonstrations, Chief Executive Carrie Lam characterized protesters, perhaps in a clumsy effort to appear maternal, as spoiled children. By November, they were enemies of the people. That’s a denomination now expanded to opponents of a national security law, while medical professionals that have questioned a mass Covid-19 testing campaign are accused of smearing Beijing. As China tightens its grip, its vocabulary of hurt national feelings and threat is turning up in the territory. The once technocratic language of Hong Kong’s leaders has become more strident, emotional, subjective.

The trend began last year, most notably when a police official suggested a man beaten by officers in a taped attack was in fact a “yellow object.” Or when Lam denied police used excessive force to control demonstrations, despite footage and research showing the contrary. It went several steps further when Hong Kong police retold one of the most notorious incidents during last year's protests. On July 21, 2019, an organized group of white-shirted men armed with canes and rods attacked commuters and anti-government protesters arriving back at a subway station in the territory's northwest. A senior officer last month asserted that the attack wasn't indiscriminate and instead described it as a clash between two groups. A pro-democracy lawmaker who says he called the police and was injured that night was arrested and accused of rioting. 

None of these tactics are unique to Hong Kong. Siege mentality is common. Polish leader Andrzej Duda was re-elected in July after a campaign of dark national populism that baited minorities. India has not been immune to divisive tactics. The Kremlin is often similarly divorced from fact: President Vladimir Putin recently recast the history of the Second World War to absolve the Soviet Union and its behavior at the start of the conflict. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has outdone himself during Covid-19, dismissing the illness as “a little cold,” while promoting unproven miracle cures. This is the world of Trump’s alternative facts.

But in Hong Kong, this wasn't the norm. The abrupt nature of the shift shows just how fast the city has gone from a hybrid political system with extensive civil liberties into something quite different — even if popular outrage over the subway incident, to pick an example, shows the shift is meeting resistance. Lee Morgenbesser at Griffith University in Australia, who studies authoritarianism, points out that the government has tried to recast the events of that evening without having full control of the media, or of information in the public domain, including on social media. The result is not flattering. 

Eroding institutions and questioning facts unmoors us all, as philosopher Hannah Arendt pointed out half a century ago. Populations become disconnected, and cynical. They cease to trust. For Hong Kong, the cost is an erosion in freedom of speech and the independent judiciary, factors that have been fundamental in the territory’s economic success. Beijing’s hope is that Hong Kong will stop meddling with politics and get on with business. That may be wishful thinking.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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