Understanding Hong Kong’s Political Situation through Classics

Hong Kong has been grappling with many contentious political issues that have caused deep divisions in our society. Can classics by iconic political thinkers and philosophers offer enlightening intellectual guidance when we ponder these issues?

Dr Cheung Chor-yung was keen to share the wisdom of the classics with students and members of the public.

The talks sought to engage participants in a thought-provoking dialogue.

Organised by the Department of Public Policy, the Saturday Talk Series aims to explore current political and social issues in depth through immersive dialogues among participants, based on ideas conveyed in books. The talk series, which welcomes secondary students, students of CityU and members of the public, is the brainchild of Dr CHEUNG Chor-yung, Senior Teaching Fellow at the department. The first series was launched in 2017. “Through the dialogues, we analyse and discuss public administration, politics and policies and the justification behind them. We then apply them to the analysis of current situations,” said Cheung, adding that the talk series also gives secondary students a glimpse of the university learning experience.

The latest talk series, held on three separate Saturdays in February, March and April this year, featured three classics: Politics as a Vocation , by Max WEBER, for the discussion on whether Hong Kong has sufficient political talent, on 23 February 2019; The Last Days of Socrates, by Plato, for the discussion on civil disobedience, on 30 March 2019; and The Analects of Confucius for the talk on liberal studies on 27 April 2019. Although the selected classics in diverse fields are from different periods and cultures, they all share a profound wisdom about politics and governance. “This wisdom and knowledge has mainly been cited by specialised scholars. Through the talk series, I want to share it with secondary students and members of the public who are concerned with current affairs,” Cheung noted. “The wisdom in the classics may not be correct, but it is thought-provoking.”

When we’re immersed in a dialogue, we will begin thinking and the process of distinguishing between appearance and reality

Dr Cheung Chor-yung

Engaging the participants in thought-provoking dialogue is a key objective of the talk series. For instance, a typical discussion among the inquisitive and intellectually curious at the forum may begin with “politics for managing humanity”, a much-quoted saying by Dr SUN Yat-sen, and lead to a series of questions: what constitutes “humanity”? How do we define it? And if humanity covers all human beings on planet earth, we only need one government. Then why do we need nation states?

“When we’re immersed in a dialogue, we will begin thinking and the process of distinguishing between appearance and reality. Diverse perspectives will emerge because all participants are equal contributors and each brings to the table his/her specialised knowledge. New topics that further enrich the dialogue will be generated,” Cheung said.

The talk titled “Civil Disobedience and the Last Days of The talks sought to engage participants in a thought-provoking dialogue. Socrates” was held while Hong Kong was being gripped by public discussion of the trial and subsequent sentencing of the Occupy leaders. The talk resonated with many: it highlighted the parallels between the “Umbrella Movement” leaders and Socrates, a classical Greek philosopher who lived in Athens nearly 2,500 years ago. Socrates was embroiled in a similar situation and struggled with many questions, such as when should we abide by the law? When should we persist with our stance, even though it would mean violating the law? What is the justification? If we have broken the law, how should we be made accountable? And how does civil disobedience differ from the conventional concept of violation of the law? “We discussed Socrates’ self-defence in court, and later how he decided to accept the verdict and sentence instead of fleeing,” Cheung said. “We looked at what we have learnt from The Last Days of Socrates and how we project what we have learnt onto the Occupy leaders.”

In 1919, German sociologist and political philosopher Max Weber articulated his thoughts on Politics as a Vocation in a lecture at Munich University. He explored in depth the definition of politics and the essential traits of politicians. “Using Weber’s thoughts as the basis, we looked at the current situation in Hong Kong at the talk. We discussed the city’s political talent, governance and politics. Does Hong Kong have sufficient political talent? What are the prerequisites of politicians, and how are they different from the traits of businessmen and civil servants? How do we cultivate the attributes of a politician? How do the standards and ethics of politics differ from moral and behavioural standards as we know them?” Cheung noted.

The Analects of Confucius is a compilation of dialogues between the Chinese thinker and politician (551-479 BC) and his pupils. His thoughts carry as much relevance to present-day’s connection between dialogue and learning as they did over 2,500 years ago. Cheung’s talk applied Confucius’ exploration of learning to liberal studies in Hong Kong. “For instance, he emphasises the constant revision of acquired wisdom and knowledge, and that joy is inherent in fully immersive learning. The book points out that a sage has comprehensive knowledge that is beyond mere professional expertise. All these ideas are relevant to liberal studies.”

Exposure to the best knowledge contained in classics, and the cultivation of independent thinking, are among the goals Cheung aims to achieve in his guidance for undergraduates. “A successful university education for students should be a transformative learning experience. University study provides the platform for students to learn about matters beyond appearance in their pursuit of reality. Transformative learning goes beyond common sense acquired through primary and secondary education. It can be for practical and other purposes. Transformative learning is also for self-understanding, so that we are able to identify where our true passions lie, and why,” Cheung said.