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How truth survived 2019

Dec 31,2019 - Last updated at Dec 31,2019

LONDON — “Truthiness”, a concept coined by the American comedian Stephen Colbert, involves saying things that you want to believe are true even if there is no factual evidence to support these assertions. And without doubt, truthiness has had a great run in 2019, from US President Donald Trump’s Washington, to the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom, to events in Asia.

This disturbing trend was partly reflected in Time magazine’s choice of candidates for its 2019 Person of the Year. The shortlist of five included Trump, who, although he did not win the prize of seeing his picture on Time’s cover, exemplifies the political triumph of today’s ubiquitous mendacity. In the opposite corner were two other candidates: The whistleblower who exposed Trump’s attempt to extort Ukraine’s president for political gain, and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, who presided over the chamber’s recent vote to impeach the president.

The two remaining contenders also represented old-fashioned honesty and political courage. The winner was Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate-change campaigner. Some patronise her, while others reject her arguments. But she represents the concerns of those who will inherit the future. Moreover, what Thunberg says bears the imprimatur of most of the world’s climate scientists. She wants world leaders to act to save the planet before it is too late.

On a recent visit to Australia, first to Melbourne, and then to Sydney, I was surprised at the disconnect between the government’s position on climate change and the bushfires that are devastating New South Wales. Almost 30 years ago, as Britain’s environment minister, I chaired the London conference that toughened up the Montreal Protocol in order to prevent further ozone depletion. The Australian government was one of that initiative’s major supporters, which was hardly surprising given that the hole in the ozone layer above Australia was expanding at the time. With forest fires now ringing Sydney, it is surprising that the current government still seems so complacent about climate change. In fact, some of its members sound as though they think global warming is all a hoax.

Rounding out Time’s shortlist were Hong Kong’s pro-democracy campaigners, who were saluted for protests that have been ongoing for more than six months. Quite apart from the demonstrators’ bravery and the principles they represent, most of the time peacefully, there are three reasons to see their actions as blows for the truth.

First, the demonstrators are correct to argue that the Chinese communist regime has reneged on the promises made to Hong Kong when China regained sovereignty over the city in 1997. Hong Kong’s citizens were assured that they would have a high degree of local autonomy and would continue living in a free society under the rule of law. But the city’s government has proved to be a subservient mouthpiece of the regime in Beijing. In practice, that means it does nothing to address the demonstrators’ legitimate grievances about the way they are governed and the lack of progress, despite many promises, with regard to democratic accountability in the last 20 years.

Second, in addition to other complaints, the demonstrators have been incensed by the growing incidence of police brutality during the protests. There also have been clear breaches of humanitarian law in the treatment of health workers who were prevented from assisting injured demonstrators.

The Hong Kong government says that it already has an adequate system for handling complaints against the police. But that claim has been exposed as nonsense by the resignation of a panel of outside experts who were brought in to assess whether existing institutions dealing with police conduct were fit for purpose. Clearly, the panel’s members did not think that they could carry out their properly assigned task.

Finally, Hong Kong’s citizens stood behind the demonstrators despite the violent behaviour of an extreme fringe as the protests continued. Although this minority perhaps was provoked by the government’s failure to engage with them or with the majority of entirely peaceful campaigners, their violence was and is unacceptable.

Some, including China’s communist regime and its supporters in Hong Kong, believed that the violence would undermine public support for the demonstrators’ demands. Far from it. Hong Kong’s district council elections in November resulted in a sweeping victory for pro-democracy candidates, proving emphatically that there was no silent majority in support of the city’s government. On the contrary, the majority of not-so-silent citizens were in favor of democracy and the rule of law.

Hong Kong’s demonstrators thus were on the side of truth: their city really did want to defend cherished values and hold its government and police to account.

As we move into 2020, however, I feel very strongly that the demonstrators would be wise to try to end the violence and rely on the visible strength of their support to make their case. I still believe that, over time, the pressure of strong sentiment in Hong Kong and around the world is more likely to shift the totalitarian regime in Beijing than fighting the police and causing property damage are.

Truthiness cast a dark shadow over public life in 2019, and probably will continue to do so next year. But fortunately for those who care about both democracy and the planet, the actual truth remains a powerful force.


Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is chancellor of the University of Oxford. ©Project Syndicate, 2019.

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