Stories with a grand narrative can join the past and the future. They can motivate a community to believe and act. A good story can even persuade others that someone or something is special and, even though they may not have a direct stake in the outcome, they would nevertheless wish the protagonists well.
British Hong Kong had a good story in the run-up to 1997. Its people worked hard and had an indomitable spirit. China had its own story about Hong Kong: after reunification, the city would prosper as never before due to China’s wise and pragmatic “one country, two systems” policy.
A City Mismanaged is policy analysis as blood sport. Leo Goodstadt needs no introduction in Hong Kong circles; those outside might need to know that he was head of the pre-Handover Hong Kong government’s Central Policy Unit from 1989-1997. He has penned a no-holds-barred smackdown of the four post-colonial Hong Kong administrations.
Whether or not you agree with the arguments of Hong Kong’s student activists, everyone can agree that their emergence has been one of the biggest changes to Hong Kong’s political situation for at least a decade.
All too many places have the form of democracy—elections—without the substance. Hong Kong, just about uniquely, has the opposite: most of the substance—a free press, independent courts, rule of law, privacy protections, etc.—without the form. The territory suffers having a significant democratic deficit, a situation that Christopher Patten, the “last governor”, famously called “liberty without democracy”.
One need look no further than Britain’s impending departure from the European Union for an example of how once apparently dormant elements of a nation’s self-image can be reawakened. An abiding historical sense of aloofness and suspicion of Europe, which seemed to have been quelled by the forces of globalisation in recent decades, has emerged in the last year with renewed vigour. Evident also in the appeal of Trump to persistent American notions of exceptionalism, the flattening of specific cultural characteristics engendered by globalisation seems not to have greatly shifted the fundamentals of how these countries view both themselves and the outside world.
A few weeks ago in front of Lincoln Center in New York, while Women in The World Summit was about to start, a woman who seemed to like she could move mountains called Tina Brown was telling me, “I very much liked your description… What was it? ‘Having a sword fight with the ghosts’.”