Hong Kong, Newspeak, and Psychological Subversion (Part 1)

2015. A relatively uneventful year for Hong Kong. Nevertheless, the resignation of Ronny Tong (湯家驊) from the Civic Party (公民黨) managed to arouse much attention.

“Tearful Ronny Tong quits as legislator,” reported the SCMP (南華早報) on 22 June 2015. [1] The lawmaker, when founding the Civic Party, had hoped “to inspire the party…to win over moderate Hongkongers too in order to strengthen the democratic movement”. Following this break from his former party, Tong founded the Path of Democracy (民主思路) in pursuit of his political principles.

Our focus today, however, is not on Tong’s whereabouts or how the pan-democrats dealt with this blow. Rather, we should pay more attention upon the wordings that Tong and SCMP used. For the use of the word ‘moderate’ is inadequate. The SCMP quote above was a translation of Tong’s ‘致各公民黨兄弟姊妹書’, which was essentially his resignation letter. The original passage in Chinese is as follows:


The bolded word in the original Chinese passage is then translated to English as ‘moderate’. This translation is a bad one to say the least, since it leads to misunderstanding. For the original Chinese word ‘中立’ has two different meanings – one is to imply ‘moderation’ or ‘the middle way’, as the translation believed what Tong was suggesting; the other is ‘neutrality’.

Perhaps the translation was correct. In that case Tong was responsible for causing such a misunderstanding. It is totally unnecessary to use the word ‘中立’ to convey the first meaning. For instance, Tong could say ‘中間路線’ instead, which has a literal meaning of ‘in the middle way’, and he certainly has the ability to do so, himself being a renowned lawyer, who are notorious in their selection of words. Instead, Tong used the word ‘中立’ in multiple instances in his resignation letter to convey the meaning of the ‘middle way’. So what made a great literacy like Ronny Tong blunder in perhaps his most important letter of his life?

Before answering, let us first consider the nature of this misuse of wordings. In essence, this is a form of Newspeak, as a reference to Orwell’s 1984. Being the official language of a fictional dystopian nation named Oceania, Newspeak was specifically engineered to remove the possibility of rebellious thoughts among its people. One of its techniques is ‘doublethink’, which makes a person simultaneously accept contradictory concepts. For example, the word ‘free’ in Newspeak does not imply ‘free will’. Instead it would mean ‘the absence and lack of something’, which is contradictory to its original meaning. Back to Tong’s case, his blurring of two distinct and opposing concepts of the word ‘中立’ has far-reaching consequences. For one would now use the word ‘中立’ to suggest that he did not take a political stance while claiming to be a moderate at the same time, which is a political stance, despite not being consciously aware of it.

With the current turmoil in Hong Kong, we are beginning to grasp the full extent of the horror of such a misconception. The unconscious personal bias due to ‘doublethink’ means that people are increasingly unable to distinguish the attitude they imply through their words from the one they have in their minds. A current phenomenon is for someone to claim themselves as ‘中立’ (moderate) while ‘opposing violence of all sorts’. This is actually self-deception, as the word ‘moderate’ is confused with ‘neutrality’. Apart from this, their sentence contains one more misconception caused by Newspeak.

That is, the confusion of ‘violence’ (暴力) from ‘force’ (武力). This is in a slightly different manner, and although it does not necessarily lead to bias, it is extremely likely to. Violence, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “the unlawful exercise of physical force or intimidation by the exhibition of such force”. Hence the word implies illegitimacy. To briefly illustrate this, we could take a look at the Social Contract Theory. The theory considers that man, with a purpose to improve their own well-being, had at some point decided to come together and form governments to provide security, and gave the government legitimacy to exert force. Try to imagine the word ‘force’ being replaced by ‘violence’ instead. This would sound odd, because the sentence would become self-contradictory. How could any party exert legitimate force illegitimately? One has to commit doublethink to be able to say something like that.

Back to the original stance, ‘I oppose violence of all sorts.’ A common meaning of this sentence, in the current context, is that they acknowledge how there is both violence from the protestors and abuse of power from the police, and that they oppose both of them. However, the ‘abuse of power’ from the police does not translate perfectly into ‘violence from the police’. For the police belongs to the government. Ergo, most of the police’s exertion of force, when according to law, cannot be described as ‘violence’, at least in a normative sense. Perhaps there this may be debatable in a positive sense, such as that the law may grant the police too much power, but this does affect the police’s legal status. The police’s exertion of force can be categorized into two different types – the use of ‘force’, and ‘abuse of power.’ Contrary to this, when the protestors use ‘force’, it in itself is illegitimate in a normative sense – the fact that it is unlawful and that they do not belong to the government means that ‘force’ by the protestors is equivalent to ‘violence’. Therefore, in this context, we are describing three categories of ‘forces’ – ‘force’ from the police, ‘abuse of power’ from the Police, and, ‘violence’ from the protestors.

Why is it so important to distinguish these categories of ‘forces’? Because this saves us from entering a false dilemma, which will be elaborated below. ‘Force’ from protestors can only be described as ‘violence’ because the protestors are not a legitimate unit. This may lead to one thinking that forces from all parties can only be phrased as either ‘violence’ or ‘force’, judged by whether the unit is legitimate or not. As this line of thought is applied to the police, problems arise. Our thinker, if he did not establish a distinction between the three categories of forces mentioned above, would observe that the police is a legitimate unit, and thus reach the conclusion that ‘all police actions are legitimate’. As a consequence, police actions would only be described as ‘force’ instead of ‘violence’, and when one claims to ‘oppose violence of all sorts,’ one is, in reality, opposing only violence from protestors, again without consciously being aware of it.

Hence the common stance for ‘neutrality’ in contemporary Hong Kong collapses in the face of two inherent contradictions, namely, mixing ‘neutrality’ with the ‘middle way’, and ‘force’ with ‘violence’. This could all be avoided, however, if one is willing to clarify his position. For instance, if I say instead, ‘I am a moderate, and I oppose both violence from protestors and abuse of power from the police,’ this does not lead to, or is not prone to cause any logical fallacies within the sentence. Hence, while the proposition can be challenged on the outside by arguments, it does not fall apart within, and one would be saying exactly what they have in mind. It could as well be said that the second confusion of ‘force’ and ‘violence’ stems from the first one. It is simply too easy to make the whole point explicit. Yet it might seem to some that what is mentioned in a sentence first bears a greater weight. In this case, if someone claims to be a moderate and ‘oppose both violence from the protestors and abuse of power from the police’, another person might challenge, ‘so you oppose the protestors more than the police?’ And the first person, in order to avoid potential conflict, would try to act tactfully and reply ‘I oppose violence of all sorts,’ and thus plunge into self-deception and confusion. And we now see how attempts to manifest one’s ‘neutrality’ paves the way to mishandling ‘force’ and ‘violence'. Which is laughable, for the person could just state ‘I oppose both equally.’

This is a grave issue, for as Thomas Mann proclaimed, “thinking well was the next thing to acting well.” If language is being mishandled, this would lead to confusion and a subversion of fundamental social values. Social norms and values may vary according to the virtues or vices of times, yet little are those changes related to a misuse of language. The use of language, the amount of words or meanings a language could convey has always been increasing. Rousseau’s anthropology in his Second Discourse elaborated that man’s first ‘language’ was his ‘cry of nature’, which is to cry out when faced with urgency or danger. Language has always been evolving as man’s thought spread and began to build closer personal relations.

That language would become less able to convey meaning is against any form of human nature, and at war with any anthropological accounts. Ergo, the failing—or societal mishandling of a language could only be the result of an arbitrary process.


[1] https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/1824729/tearful-ronny-tong-quits-legislator-hours-after-resigning

[2] https://hk.news.appledaily.com/local/realtime/article/20150622/53883050