Nothing wrong with populism if…

Former financial secretary John Tsang speaks at HKU on populism.Former financial secretary John Tsang speaks at HKU on populism.

By John Tsang Chun-wah –

I was asked to say a few words today on the topic- “What’s wrong with populism?” and engage in dialogue with you. My speech is a short one, since my answer to the question is also very short and simple. Nothing. I don’t see anything wrong with populism.

First we need to see what we mean with populism. According to Wikipedia, it is a mode of political communication that appeals to the common man, often contrasted against the privileged elite. Populism is intended to be centrist to traditional political right left spectrum, as it sees both bourgeoisie capitalist and socialist organizers as having an unfair domination in the political field. Populism is common in democratic nations, where political parties and politicians would appear to empathizes with public through rhetoric or unrealistic approaches and proposals, in order to increase their political appeals across political spectrums.

In the traditional application of this mode of political communication, we have the iconic populist example of the President of Argentina Juan Perón, some 70 and 80 years ago, who promised the people a universal public pension, universal access to healthcare and massive public road projects. A large portion of Argentineans at the time loved it, just loved it, but some people say that they are still suffering from those in the past, even Broadway and all the show still says the phrase, Don’t cry for me Argentina.

More recently we have Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador from 2007 and middle of this year – 10 years – who spent public funds in abundance on schools, anti-poverty programs, health clinics and highways.

There are other populists leaders, such as Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela from 1999 to 2013. Silvio Berlusconi, Prime Minister of Italy in 4 governments, who exercised of what I called “let-them-have-candies” approach.

These are all seemingly good things! Schools, pension plans, highways and so forth, and all of these benefit the people, especially who are in the lower economic strata, at least in a short term.

So what’s wrong with the populist initiatives?

Nothing at all

I still think nothing at all, if we can afford, and not just for short term. And if it would not damage our economy and well-being of subsequent generations. Problems would arise if we were to take a carefree, buy-now-and-pay-later kind of attitude towards these initiatives.

I know from my experience as the Financial Secretary that setting fiscal policy for large recurring expenditure, we need to take a more macro, longer term approach. And these leaders weren’t concerned about how their governments would pay for these initiatives and how these initiatives would impact on a longer term development of the economies. There will be other people worry, but in the time being, they would remain popular with their constituents.

To meet these promises they made to the people, they would implement policies that are expensive in nature, both fiscal and monetary policies, to redistribute income and also give the impression of growth of the economy. These methods are actually quite sweet for a while, but after a short period of economic utopia, bottlenecks would develop, macroeconomic pressures would build up to such an extent that real wages would fall, balance of payment difficulty would surface. This is the classic formula for high inflation, or financial crisis, or even collapse of the entire economic system.

Besides the “let-them-have-candies” school of populists, the recent populists have other populists agenda issues. The most prominent of this batch leaders is of course Donald Trump of the United States. Besides promising to make America great again by all means necessary- even though most of those appear to be rather irrational and inconsistent, particularly with international aspiration.

He undertook for example to build a wall along the Mexican border and get the Mexicans to pay for that, as well as getting out of the Paris Agreement, and deport undocumented immigrants. Those promises are actually quite well received by a good portion of the American population, good enough for him to win the presidency, despite losing the popular vote to Hillary by 2 million.

Another example is Rodrigo Duterte, the President of the Philippines. He ordered the police to execute suspected drug dealers and police have done so expeditiously as successful, killing thousands without due process. He has been severely criticised by international community but he does not seem to mind and his popularity remain very high. So I guess he understands well the saying created by Tip O’Neill, that “all politics are local”.

We also have Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, who expanded the rights of farmers who grow cocoa. As well as Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician who wants to get rid of hate speech laws.

We must also mention that Brexiters, who were delighted the people, the real people has smashed the elites.

As we can see, the recent leaders moved away from the “free-candy” approach. No more free-candy, replacing them with popular initiatives that concerned with different factions of local populations. These concerns are typically local in nature, and limited in scale, not necessarily supported by everybody in society.

Factions for each of the issues may be small, but when this issues represent different forces in society, it gradually align themselves, they can create wave after wave of latent but potentially potent actions, culminating in the formation of a loose majority.

Mainstream political force cannot ignore this additive process – that’s how different factions hold themselves to replace the incumbent mainstream without they even taking much notice.

Populists not known as ideologues

Populist politicians come in different forms, and they focus on different issues. They do have one thing in common – they are not known for strong ideologies. Populists are often defined by are their claims that they alone represent the people, and everyone else is illegitimate – kind of government by “my people”.

The populist believe the people, at least their people are always right. In a narrow sense, I cannot disagree with that. That’s indeed the essence of democracy, isn’t it? Government of the people, by the people and for the people. Populist leaders would articulate their rhetoric with such convincing strength and firmly, that the voters would give them their votes and the power to govern.

But is populist politics the true meaning of democracy, particularly liberal democracy? Should we not be concerned about the rights of minority? Or people other than their people? What about the rule of law? And I don’t mean the rule by law.

Some people told me that my election campaign this year was a populist movement. I have given some thought to that. It is true that it was neither right or left in a traditional political sense, in the circumstances of Hong Kong, neither “blue” or “yellow”. Perhaps a good portion of both, certainly it was centrist.

Some people criticized me for not being ideological, not standing for anything. I was not sure about that. I have reiterated many times, that I abide by the core values of the Hong Kong people, no doubt my supporters know what exactly I stand for.

My campaigns not only pursue 1,194 votes of the Election Committee members, I also appeal to people of Hong Kong, even though regrettably I knew well that we did not yet have universal suffrage, but I still want everyone to have a part in this election. And I sought their support and participation. In this sense, I think this is democratic, but unfortunately it was perceived by some as anti-system, some even think that’s anti-establishment.

I was pro-establishment

To be absolutely clear, I have no such intention. I have worked in the Government for 34 years, I was a pro-establishment candidate, even though the so-called establishment for tactical or for whatever reason, labeled me as opposition’s candidate, the one that they must collectively demolish.

My election manifesto sought to fortify the application of “One Country, Two Systems” principles in Hong Kong, highlighting the strength of our institutions, under a more liberal political regime. I sought to enhance it in a small way, the current operating system has become a little sluggish in the last administration. This approach was not embraced by the establishment, as shown by the results of votes, cast by the Election Committee members. I received 365 votes, most of them did not come from pro-establishment camp.

The campaign however lifted the spirit of the majority of the people in a significant way, with a generous public outpouring of emotions, by citizens who rarely demonstrated preference or interest at all in the governance of our community. I think that itself is worthy of our notice.

My election campaign was recognized by the community as hugely successful, in terms of its impact, in terms of its public acceptance. What concern the so-called traditional establishment was that I gain in the polls the support of the majority of people, even though I ended up losing the race. This is a difficult contradiction to explain to anyone, so you can say my campaign included attributes of a populist movement, and it was a good demonstration of what my good friend Derek Yuen called “decent populism”, in another form that help awaken the silent majority who has been sitting quietly in the middle of the bell curve for a long time, particularly in this new age of identity politics, as coined by Chris Patten in his new book, First Confession.

Going back to the original question now, what’s wrong with populism? I would still insist that there’s nothing wrong with populism. It is just a mode of political communication that seeks to garner support from people, which is the source of our political franchise. It is the content that we should scrutinise carefully, in order to ensure the promulgation of which will not in the process erode the value, the institution and the aspiration that we so jealously treasure, that we so wholeheartedly seek to preserve.

This is edited speech given by former financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah at the HKU Faculty of Social Science Induction on August 30. It is compiled by CitizenNews without reconfirmation by Mr Tsang. Any errors are ours.

Photos: CitizenNews pictures



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