TOM PLATE WRITES – I wouldn’t mind being 20-Something again. It was the only time in my life that I had not yet made blunders of which I was aware, and – as best as I can recall – it was the only time I felt sure I knew just about everything I needed to know. Bring back the good old young days!
Sometimes at 20-Something, you do get things right. The U.S. invasion of Vietnam, for example: the truth is, pace Lee Kuan Yew, maybe the greatest political mind I ever interviewed, that President Lyndon Johnson made a terrible mistake. That, anyway, was what I thought at 19 or so. Fearlessly, I wrote the scorching opposition editorial in my college newspaper. My political science professor scoffed at my bid for immortality and termed the editorial immature and naive. But on that one (and just about the only one!) the kid was right and the prof was wrong.
Not often enough: The problem with permitting “young adults” to decide important events of our political and economic lives is that they may be right on some things, but they can’t be right on everything – and maybe not even on most. If they were, we could throw out the need for much of higher education and ignore the findings of the brain scientists who say that the brain does not reach full processing maturity as quickly as young people assume.
Examples? Surely, we can all agree – craven capitalists as well as communist cadres — that the Chinese kids who drove the Cultural Revolution to paroxysms of insanity were not exactly mature decision-makers. Surely every candid reader has an example, either in history or in their own household, of judgments by teens they wish not to emerge as public policy.
People do not necessarily get stupider as they get older. Physicists tend not to improve their schemata with age, but whether composer or chef, it is fair to say that most crafts take time to marinate. Yes, the opera Apollo et Hyacinthus was put together when the composer was 11, but Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was … well … Mozart. What’s more, genius is no function of age, and by very definition it is rare. The greats of Western philosophy were no spring chickens when their best thinking hatched. Thomas Hobbes was a sprightly 63 when his monumental Leviathan was published. Sagacious Niccolo Machiavelli had not put I altogether in The Prince until he was 44. Harvard’s John Rawls was 50 when ‘A Theory of Justice’ was published – and he kept revising his thought to get it as close to right as he could.
Proper political rule – whether in theorization or in street-level practice – is not easy. A youthful age is no barrier to intelligence or even original insight, but an obvious impediment to mature judgment. Older people are of course anything but always right but, please, they have certainly lived enough life to have earned the right to be wrong. Let’s get down to a pressing example. The ‘elders’ of Beijing have decided that eruptive Hong Kong cannot wholly govern itself and have intervened with ‘federal’ legislation. This empowers the central government to decide ‘federally’ whether someone in the Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China needs to be removed from SAR civil life and introduced to the mercies of the mainland judicial system. Objections to the new national security law have been many and fierce – whether from admirably crusty law professors to the youngest of the Young Turks in the SAR, unashamed at not being able to draw on decades of experience.
These Twenty-Somethings deserve credit (says the West) for keeping the torch of democracy aflame; or deserve a level of punishment (says Beijing) for undermining the placidity of the polity. From a purely theoretical standpoint, the Young Turks hail more from the Rawls camp, and the Elders from the Hobbes. (It would have been nice if the governing administration of Carrie Lam had possessed the political chops of a Machiavelli, so as to stay ahead of both sides; instead its performance has been not unlike that of President Donald Trump’s mishandling of the Covid-19 eruption.).
The two camps cannot be definitionally bifurcated by age, to be sure; old as well as young populate both sides. But the spirit of each is mutually incompatible. And either the huffy-stuffy British (arriving only at the tail end of 156 years of colonization as pretentious preachers of democracy) nor holier-than-thou Americans (don’t get me started!) have done little to merit the affections of any sane person praying for redemptive intervention. Their bloviating only steeled the arrogance of the Xi administration’s reversion to the national-security option. Mother China has opted not to spare-the-rod on the spoiled children.
Taking more of the crazy untamable air out of Hong Kong is, however, risky business. Think about it: Do we want Hong Kong to be not much different from other similar-sized mainland cities? (Could we American re-imagine San Francisco as little more than another Omaha?) Is homogenization the only way to process Hong Kong’s perturbations? I think I know the truth (after all, remember: I’m old), but at the same time it’s at least clearer than the murky waters of Victoria Harbor that the Young Turks were not ready for the crusade they set for themselves.
But be not ashamed, try to revert to a studious humility; stand down, avoid jail, give yourself time and space to grow up. Live to quarrel with Beijing another day – or decade. Martyrdom won’t do anything for Hong Kong; but maturity might. That requires patience. History takes time.
The original version of this column appeared earlier this week in the famed South China Morning Post. Regular SCMP contributor Tom Plate is Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs at Loyola Marymount University, the author of YO-YO DIPLOMACY, and VP of the Pacific Century Institute.