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Common Nonsense : Institutional Sense

【明報專訊】"One Country Two Systems" was a sweet constitutional principle. Unfortunately, after more than two decades' adulteration and corruption it has rotten as an ideological expression which in turn is doomed to be another instance of common nonsense. The heavy use and even over use render it to be so common a slogan that it could readily be shot from one's mind to one's lips without thinking. Once shot, it immediately sounds nonsense now as the practice we have witnessed defies what is supposedly to be the original meaning and connotations of the term — a binocular constitutional vision founded on the respect for plurality and differences. One Country does not precede Two Systems. It consists of the Two Systems! A great country is not made of great men (not to mention the singular strong man!) but great institutions. A country turns great only when she adopts and successfully builds herself on ingenious institutions. Two Systems was once a candidate for such an institution.

At the very start of the new year, Klaus Mühlhahn, a professor of Chinese history of the Free University of Berlin, published a big book on the journey of the Chinese modernisation from the Great Qing to the present presided by President Xi. Making China Modern is a bold attempt to construct and reconstruct such a journey through the paths taken by the Chinese (apparently Mühlhahn doesn't subscribe to the school of New Qing history by seeing the Manchu dynasty as another chapter of Chinese history) in adopting, revising, changing and even inventing institutions fitting and answering the domestic and foreign challenges of the last three centuries. The insight is not original. Mühlhahn acknowledged that he borrowed the idea from Douglass North, the Nobel laurel economist. North's definition of institution has since become the common currency in humanities: "the rules of the game in a society, more formally, the humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction." Sure, One Country Two Systems is an institution and so is our Basic Law.

Sadly, the rotting of our One Country Two Systems is just another example of institutional change. Such a change or a series of such changes might not have been instigated but have conspicuously been escalated by that Chinese Dream mingling nationalism, economic growth and authoritarianism. The assemblage of these values is just antipathetic to the respect for plurality and differences. That renders the Dream very pre-modern and anti-Enlightenment. And that Chinese Dream, we are told, could only be realised by following the collective goals devised by the CCP. Our once binocular constitutional vision has now to be adjusted and reinterpreted to join that Dream. We are moving from the modern to the pre-modern. Indeed that sounds very much an irony and even antithesis of Mühlhahn's title Making China Modern. Even Mühlhahn himself sounded uncertain when drawing his book to a close. His closing chapter is titled "Ambitions and Anxieties" and the particulars under such a title could not be far from every reader's guess. However, without launching any explicit discussion into our Umbrella Movement in the recent past, Mühlhahn wittily and even wickedly inserted into his last page a photo portraying a boy drawing a few words on his tent standing on the ground of Admiralty in October 2014. Those words are close to our hearts, though these days we have to keep them rather close to our chests: Hong Kong Camp! Hong Kong Camp shall not be a threatening ambition of ours causing the unwarranted anxieties of those north of our border. It is just a nice distinction showcasing our modern virtues of respecting pluralism and differences. It makes every common sense.

■By Lawrence Lau 劉偉聰

​Lawrence is a life debater who has to debate with his life. Being a barrister makes him a living while reading and writing gives him a life. This is his cat Dworkin.

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