HKFP Voices Politics & Protest

Reflecting on Barack Obama’s presidency: Lessons for Hong Kong

Last week marked the official end of the Barack Obama presidency, and perhaps also an unofficial start to the Chief Executive Election Campaign in Hong Kong with all four candidates now throwing their hats into the ring.

As we look back on eight years of president Obama, it would serve us well to consider a few reflections on the values and failures that underpinned Obama’s presidency.

obama hong kong

Conciliation is hard but it has to start with listening

Obama was elected as the candidate to heal the division and partisanship of Washington, yet it goes without saying this was also his greatest failure; he left office with a more divided politics and country than before.

However, he has always held on to hope: to set aside the hatred and to have the humility to acknowledge that he may be wrong and others are worth listening to.

And so, just as our current candidates recognize the importance of healing the polarization and finding unity in Hong Kong, it’s also vital to understand that conciliation is a hard task and can only begin with that deep empathy to truly feel and see things from another person’s point of view.

John Tsang

Photo: Facebook/John Tsang.

John Tsang puts it best when he maintains in his candidacy announcement speech that what matters most is the “willingness to listen, to remember and feel what others say”- for that’s the only way to begin the process of conciliation.

The long arc of history reminds us to be patient

A core tenet of Obama’s foreign policy is his belief that we are all part of a long-running story within which our humble role is to get our paragraph right. Specifically, there’s an appreciation of the complexities and ambiguities of our world which reminds us to be patient, for any progress is often a hard-fought battle within the constraints of path-dependencies and historical legacies.

Indeed, much of the Obama Doctrine prizes thoughtful deliberation over rushed action. As we think about democratic and political development in Hong Kong, we should likewise have the patience to understand this requires less extremism but instead greater reflection on what the next few paragraphs should be.

obama forbidden city

Obama at the Forbidden City in 2009. Photo: The White House.

It would not be surprising that the path to democratic progress might actually begin with paragraphs on first healing discords and improving livelihoods, which creates strength in discourse to take our city forward.

It’s in the messiness of democracy where it’s beauty lies

Finally, Obama is never shy to comment that democracy is messy by definition given varied interests and disparate points of view. But its beauty also precisely lies in how those different voices can come together in harmony.

In Hong Kong, it’s easy to be frustrated by our governance and legislative processes, but having faith in our democracy means respect for procedural justice and opposing voices. The art is to balance between procedural justice that maintains democratic values, while also preserving social justice by ensuring that actual policies are implemented.

This itself is no doubt hard work. But the beauty of democracy is in both ensuring government is responsive to the everyday concerns of its people and in requiring each of us to participate as citizens to reflect those concerns.

Finally, just as Obama’s campaign eight years ago began with a simple message of “yes we can”, let us have hope as we continue to write the story of our city’s future.

Alexander Chan is currently a Hong Kong Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University.

Reflecting on Barack Obama's presidency: Lessons for Hong Kong