Fierce competition between dominant countries leads to accusatory narratives, creating intense but dysfunctional crowd emotions. Flawed human behaviour allows a big gap to exist between reality and these narratives promoted by politicians and propagated by mainstream mass media and social media. This article uses Hong Kong’s social unrest to illustrate these issues.
In the last few years, competition between China and the United States has intensified and escalated into openly confrontational rhetoric between the two biggest nations and their allies. Step by step, the accusations spiralled from unfair economic policies to intellectual property theft, national security threats, suppression of democracy and freedom, and human rights violations.
The Western mass media demonise China; the tune has not changed despite the US having changed its president. In China, the mainstream mass media accuse the US and some of its allies of practising Anglo-Saxon imperialism; they deploy demonising descriptions too. Such Chinese media often quote highly assertive and non-diplomatic statements from official spokespersons, earning such individuals the nickname “wolf-warrior”. Not surprisingly, the public in China and some Western countries have developed a mutually antagonistic attitude. The world is a place of mounting tension.
Rational politicians and economists recognise that the modern economic system is built on specialisation and cooperation. Peace is a necessary ingredient for economic cooperation. Political confrontation is economically destructive.
At times, economic prosperity is truly worth sacrificing for valued human principles. However, humans have behavioural flaws. They often cannot be sure of the validity of accusations and have a fallible process that tends to distort unfounded rumours into firmed-up facts. In the end, humans fool themselves or are fooled, with deleterious results.
Hong Kong as a case study
Let’s use the Hong Kong 2019-20 social unrest to illustrate that there is often a big gap between reality and the commonly accepted narrative. Unfortunately, people tend to develop intense feelings and take dramatic actions based on emotions derived from such narratives.
In 2018, a Hong Kong man killed his Hong Kong girlfriend in Taipei and ran back to Hong Kong. The Hong Kong police subsequently arrested him for using his dead girlfriend’s credit card. Taiwan requested Hong Kong to render the suspect.
In February 2019, the executive branch of the Hong Kong government proposed an amendment to its existing Fugitive Offenders Ordinance (from which Taiwan and mainland China had, up to that time, been excluded) so that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region could consider requests to render criminal suspects from a government of any location, including Taiwan and mainland China. The amendment excludes many crimes, such as tax evasion. It also excludes crimes with a maximum sentence of fewer than seven years. For example, suppose a person donates money to a subversive group in Beijing. The rendition law does not apply, because the maximum sentence for that crime is only five years. Furthermore, under the rendition law, before the chief executive decides to comply with a request, the Hong Kong independent court must first decide on whether the legal requirements to grant the request have been met. The amendment contains a list of legal requirements generally found in extradition treaties around the world.
Hong Kong opposition
Hong Kong has an “opposition” coalition built on the narrative that China suppresses Hong Kong’s freedom and democracy. Not surprisingly, it accuses the amendment of extending China’s “oppressive” laws into Hong Kong, allowing the mainland to extradite Hong Kong people to China at will. The charge escalated to China breaching its “one country, two systems” commitment. The opposition coalition organised protests which led to a long series of similar protests, some very violent.
Non-sympathisers call the protests riots. For example, on 1 July 2019, a procession stormed into the Legislative Council complex, causing damage that cost about HK$40 million to repair. By June 2020, with about a billion dollars of public property damaged and more than 10,000 people arrested, the tourist industry was all but destroyed. As a comparison, the ruthlessness and damage were of a much larger magnitude than the US rioters’ insurgence at Capitol Hill in Washington DC on 6 January 2021.
Complicated contemporary and historical factors drove these unfortunate events in Hong Kong.
The nature of the amendment to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance was not to apply mainland laws in Hong Kong. It only applied to persons who, having committed crimes in the mainland, then escaped to Hong Kong in order to avoid brought to justice by the mainland authorities. Nor would such a fugitive be automatically handed over on the mere say-so of the mainland authorities. The authorities must not only produce prima facie evidence, but a similar crime must also exist in Hong Kong’s statute book for such extraditions to take place. Moreover, those requesting the handing over must convince an independent Hong Kong court that these legal requirements exist.
However, to rally support, protesters manipulated the narrative regarding the nature of the amendment by suggesting that any person in Hong Kong is in danger of being handed over on trumped-up charges.
Still, the long series of protests revealed not only intense dissatisfaction towards the current system, but also underlying resentment towards several past mistakes in such areas as regressive public policy, education failure and China’s communication with Hong Kong. In particular, Hong Kong’s enormous inequality of income, sky-high housing costs and a hollowed-out economy touched a raw nerve among the young generation, causing economic grievances that play an essential role in driving their dissatisfaction.
The selling point of the protest is that China suppressed Hong Kong’s freedom and democracy, thus violating its commitment to “one country, two systems”. Is the accusation correct? Did Hong Kong have democracy during its colonial time? The basic law set up the “one country, two systems”; in what way did China violate (or not violate) it? Such questions call for careful in-depth investigation.
Although the content of the proposed amendment is different from the protesters’ narrative, the narrative has aroused intense emotion, spiralling to dramatic actions with sad consequences.
Let us dissect a few cases to illustrate the point further.
The Hong Kong Legislative Council complex has been a central landmark in several protests. One such protest on 9 June 2019 saw a siege of the building with protestors clashing with police officers at the cordon line well into the small hours of 10 June. Three days later, protestors again threatened to storm the complex with Legislative Council members and employees inside. The protesters came prepared, wearing helmets, masks, goggles and other protective gear. They pushed the police cordon line, hurling bricks and other hard objects at the officers. The violence and scale of the protests met with sterner law enforcement action, the first since the protests started, in which police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the mob.
Immediately, the protesters added police brutality to their narrative. The mass and social media carried shocking stories that characterised the Hong Kong police as using excessive force. Pro-protesters’ social media and mass media, especially from the West, painted a picture of police brutality and likened the bravery of the protesters to those of freedom fighters.
In that year-long confrontation, it is likely that both sides exhibited regrettable behaviour. For keen Hong Kong observers, including many living there, these behaviours raised more questions than answers. Some incidents might reveal a possibly flawed collective processing of information that resulted in irrational behaviour.
Between 19 and 21 September 2019, under the alias “Kim Jong-un”, a Facebook post recounted that police officers had confessed to having committed heinous crimes at the San Uk Ling police detention centre. On 27 July 2020, The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that the government had prosecuted Poon Yung-wai for publishing four Facebook fabrications of police brutality. He first pleaded not guilty to spreading unfounded rumours, and then admitted to this action when evidence was presented in court. Somehow, to the best of my knowledge, the Western media did not report this revelation.
After the Facebook post, there was a widely reported accusation that, on 27 September 2019, some policemen gang-raped an arrested 16-year-old in a police station, and that she subsequently had an abortion on 10 November 2019. In January 2020, the police claimed that the woman’s allegations did not match the outcome of the investigation. On 13 May 2020, SCMP wrote, “The police said it was a false accusation, the woman was now a ‘wanted person’.” The woman responded by revealing that the authorities had decided not to pursue her complaint any further. She criticised the force, saying it had failed to investigate her case “impartially, in strict confidentiality and with respect for my privacy and dignity”. She did not reveal whether she was in Hong Kong, but was apparently outside of the special administrative region.
On 11 October 2019, a Chinese University of Hong Kong student, Sonia Ng, in a public “meeting with the university’s president” forum, removed her mask and claimed that police had subjected her and others to sexual violence. Globally reliable mass media such as Singapore’s The Straits Times and Hong Kong’s SCMP reported the story. She said, “Do you know the body search room in San Uk Ling [Holding Centre] is all dark? Do you know I am not the only one who was subjected to sexual violence?” That same day, SCMP also reported that “two days later in a radio show, Sonia Ng clarified she was not assaulted at the Centre. She alleged the sexual assault took place at Kwai Chung Police Station after her arrest at Prince Edward MTR station on the night of August 31.” However, when the police could not verify her records, she claimed that she would not trust the police. The police were subsequently unable to contact her, nor did she report any case to them. An Internet search showed that the mass and social media continued to carry stories of her “bravery” in disclosing her identity, but offered no new information on events after 13 October 2019.
These examples do not nullify the accusation of police brutality. However, the string of incidents illustrates very biased mass media reporting. Generally, the Western media reported rumours and under-reported follow-up revelations, as well as the protesters’ acts in damaging HK$1 billion worth of public property and violence against disagreeing individuals.
These incidents also illustrate social media’s power to sustain rumours. Some even generated disinformation and lies to sustain a narrative they wanted to maintain. Hong Kong protesters’ websites, such as LIHKG, continue to carry posts of police killing protesters. Protest supporters hold regular public mourning rituals over alleged victims of murders by police, even when there is no evidence. Such sustained narrative generates a sense of despair, which has sadly resulted in a few suicides, with suicide notes that speak of the depressing unrest.
Flawed human behaviour
In the last four years, several global events have been characterised by a display of intense mass emotion. In 2018, an increase in fuel tax in France, purporting to combat global warming, triggered the “gilets jaunes” protest. In Chile, the increase in metro fares triggered a large-scale student-led protest; the government declared an emergency and called in troops. In October 2019, a 20-cent tax on WhatsApp calls as a part of the Lebanese government’s austerity policies to reduce high public debt triggered a “revolt” that lasted for five days. Hong Kong had the historically longest unrest in 2019-20. Americans had the insurgent storming of Capitol Hill on 6 January 2021.
Collective rationality is a central assumption in a democratic system. Close-range observations of Hong Kong’s unrest reveal flaws in human behaviour. People develop their beliefs and guide their behaviour based on narratives. Many acquire their narrative from opinion leaders, including political ones, and the mass media. They exercise confirmation bias – seeking only evidence that coincides with their adopted narrative. Private conversations with like-minded friends become a socialisation process, confirming the majority belief and rejecting minority beliefs. However, by self-selection, people mostly flock with friends of similar beliefs. Some people exhibit the Dunning-Kruger effect – behaving like pseudo-experts who claim to know more than they really do, in order to lead group discussions. People may resort to misinformation, disinformation and even lies to get attention and acceptance. Peer support encourages people to behave in a more extreme way than they normally would, in a manner similar to the kind of behaviour found in kids’ playgrounds, which often leads to self-justified “gang fights”, which, unfortunately, in the context of social unrest, aren’t child’s play anymore.
The role of the mass media is to inform us. In the past, reputable mass media like The Washington Post, Time and The New York Times would conduct costly in-depth and balanced investigative reporting to expose unacceptable practices, such as the 1972 Watergate Scandal. However, newspapers and magazines now face fierce competition and paper-thin profit margins. They trade off investment in investigative reporting for short-term, sensational appeal. Thus, Sonia Ng’s behaviour was reported, but an in-depth investigation was missing. “Kim Jong-un’s” shocking series of Facebook posts concerning police brutality were reported, but not the subsequent revelation of truth. Such sensational headlines and content in the mass media drive people’s adopted narrative.
Moreover, modern technology supposedly encourages comprehensive searching for information. This is far from the truth. Technology helps social media to forward information similar to, rather than different from, what people search for, thus strengthening confirmation bias. Additionally, social media link people to what they like, reinforcing the echo-chamber effect and socialisation.
Hence, mass media, social media and modern-day technology foster less comprehensive collection of information and triangulation of differences, but strengthen biases and the propagation of misinformation, disinformation and lies.
The mass media and politicians have become collaborative magic pipers. They collaborate in producing emotion-arousing headlines and attention-grabbing sound bites. These magic pipers may be good readers of the mass’s hidden sentiments, or accomplished purveyors of attention-getting narratives that sway people to follow them. Or, they may be sincere reformers who want to change the world.
In any case, we all have a social responsibility to bear. Flawed human processing of information can magnify misleading narrative that leads to social tragedy. The mutually confrontational accusations between China and the West have swayed many Chinese and Westerners towards negative feelings, racist attitudes and a surge in nativism and identity politics. When people’s emotions and attitudes are amplified and reinforced, politicians’ hands are tied. More often than not, politicians will find it extremely difficult and time-consuming to seek reconciliation and restore balance.
Some politicians understand the process and purposely exploit human flaws for personal gain or in the interests of a few of their supporters. They and their behaviour are beneath contempt.
However, some are sincere. These leaders believe in the narrative they create. To them, the Economic Nobel Laureate Friedrich von Hayek offered a piece of wise advice in his 1974 Nobel lecture: “To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm.”
The mass media and researchers have a responsibility to fulfil. In-depth journalism and academic research seek rational logic beyond conditional reflexes. The process digs deep to obtain logically satisfactory answers to questions. It then explores empirical verifications from multiple angles. Seeking truth from facts is a noble, albeit torturous, social service.
When a very credible mass media outlet reports that China practises genocide, based on allegations they cannot validate, it is hurtfully disappointing. Likewise, when government-controlled mass media write reports to deliberately appease nationalism, it is grossly upsetting. Purposely biased behaviour of that kind results in grave consequences. We can only shed a tear for our beloved standards, and may the authors be at peace with their consciences.
This article was originally published on 27 March 2021.
About the Author
Professor Bernard Yeung is Stephen Riady Distinguished Professor in Finance and Strategic Management at the National University of Singapore Business School where he was Dean from Jun 2008 to May 2019. He is also the President of the Asian Bureau of Finance and Economic Research. His research covers topics in Economics, Finance, International Business, and Strategy.
-  See Yeung, Bernard, 2020, “Hong Kong’s 2019-2020 Social Unrest: The Trigger, History and Lessons,” WorldScientific Pte Ltd. (ISBN)9811225605
-  To be exact, the police force fired 240 tear gas rounds, 19 rubber rounds (i.e. rubber baton rounds and rubber slugs), three super sock (bean bag) rounds and 33 react rounds. (IPCC HK 2020 report – 8.16, p. 412)
-  See, e.g., South China Morning Post, “Lawyers for Hong Kong teen who claims police gang-raped her accuse city’s top cop of trying to undermine case,” January 18, 2020, https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/law-and-crime/article/3046682/lawyers-hong-kong-teen-who-claims-she-was-gang-raped.
-  See, e.g., South China Morning Post, “Hong Kong police chief tried to discredit me, says girl who accused officers of gang rape,” May 13, 2020, https:// www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/law-and-crime/article/3084254/
-  See https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/law-and-crime/article/3032610/hong-kong-student-who-accused-police-sexual-violence and https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/hong-kong-police-vow-to-investigate-protester-sex-assault-claim
-  Some social media had stories that she assumed various pseudonyms to make many accusations.
-  The protesters often attacked the property of interests that disagreed with them. They also inflicted violence on people who disagreed with them. On 11 November 2019, in broad daylight, some protesters set a person called Lee Chi Cheung on fire (28% burns), because he had complained that the protesters were not Chinese. On 13 November, an off-duty, 70-year-old contract street cleaner, Luo Changqing, together with a few others, voluntarily removed bricks left on the road by the protesters after their brick-throwing activities. Protesters hanging around threw a brick at him and knocked him unconscious. Luo passed away the following day.