Updated: Mar 22, 2021
Welcome to the fifth edition of Conversations For Our Future! In this interview series we’ll be hearing from a diverse set of voices on how we can harness the pandemic to build a new global normal. I’ll be asking each interviewee the same three questions:
1. What one aspect within your sector have you seen transformed due to the pandemic?
2. In your opinion, has/will the pandemic change how we function as a society? If so, how?
3. How do you hope to personally harness the pandemic to create positive change?
My guest today is Brian Wong. Brian offers absolutely fascinating insights into the effect of the pandemic on the Higher Education sector, the new era of ‘digitalised diplomacy’, and US-China relations. Our conversation took place the week before the US election — so please bear that in mind when reading. Below is a transcript of our conversation.
Brian Wong is a Rhodes Scholar from Hong Kong (2020) and DPhil in Politics Candidate at Balliol College, Oxford. Brian’s research areas of interest intersect political theory (historical and contemporary injustice), practical ethics (Non-Identity Problem and disability), and international relations (Chinese diplomacy, nationalism, and governance).
They are the Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Political Review; Founding Secretary of Citizen Action Design Limited, a Founding Fellow of Governance Partners Yangon, and write regularly for publications including The Diplomat Magazine, TIME, the South China Morning Post, Times Higher Education, and other academic and media publications. They have also been published on Forbes and Aeon.
As a debater, Brian has served on the Chief Adjudication teams of many major international and continental competitions around the world.
What one aspect within your sector have you seen transformed due to the pandemic?
Brian: I see my sector as high education in the sense that I work in admissions and consultancy. I am myself also a member of the higher education sector as a PhD student, and finally, of course debating is innately connected to higher education. I think there are three broad trends that I would note with regards to the [HE sector and] the Covid pandemic.
The first is the digitalisation and shift to online platforms. This has been both a move that’s necessary in that face-to-face contact is not possible, but also has caused a lot of barriers and impediments. What I mean by impediments, it is not just in terms of the workload of the staff — folks that I personally am in contact with, I know that they are struggling really to adjust to preparing online materials and having to cope with ZOOM — but also the psychological strain of not being able to have face-to-face physical contact with friends, which is quite depressing. The distance and disconnect from others is another indirect cost attached to digital education.
Another thing to note is that even if we discard all the technical barriers in terms of how expensive accessing digital education (a laptop; stable wifi etc.) might be, the mode of teaching hasn’t quite adapted and caught up with the times. We’re still engaging in seminars and group discussions as if they were offline! But that’s not how ZOOM discussions work. There should be in theory prioritisation of decentralised group activities using breakout rooms, but the functionalities that are available have not been employed efficiently.
Secondly, obviously disruptions are a problem, and here I must say I feel very strongly about what’s going on in the US right now. The opening of campuses, frankly speaking, obviously is the right thing to do from the point of view of their revenue, but it is truly abysmal with respect to public health. I am not a public health specialist, but a lot of my friends are telling me that they are stuck in their own dormitories, are forced to self-isolate with folks in the dorms that are also testing positive, even though they could have avoided and averted all of these issues by just not reopening the campuses in the first place. How exactly do universities and administrations juggle between their own financial interests and also how they care for the public health of their students? I think it should be a no-brainer, but of course I’m biased because I’m a PhD student and for me it is intuitive to tilt towards the latter, but also I see why they may be reluctant to close their campuses.
The final thing to note is increasingly, instead of this fixation over formal education, what I have noticed is a rise of education technology platforms that seek to emancipate and render education more accessible to folks, even if they can’t necessarily enroll in university because of visa constraints and other public health-related concerns. In my opinion, that’s a trend that ought to be welcomed and ought to be continued even after the pandemic.
In your opinion, has/will the pandemic change how we function as a global society? If so, how?
Brian: Obviously there have been changes. What I will say though is that we have to ask ourselves: what is the global society? What exactly are we talking about here when we say global society?
As I see it, the world is increasingly fragmented and we don’t live in a single society anymore. I think we are increasingly living in bubbles of societies that are not overlapping, and are often antagonistically opposed to one another. So the first trend that you might expect is certainly the escalation of tensions on the international level, between superpowers but also between regional powers. India and China, China and the USA, Europe and China, the USA and Europe: the tensions and afflictions between countries, and also the heightening animosity between countries, I think is quite alarming – not only in the sense that, effectively, we are seeing peoples getting increasingly driven apart by ideological divides and animosity, fingers being pointed at each other in who allegedly ‘started’ Covid-19, even though it is, in my opinion, a naturally-originating phenomenon, we ought to recognise that first. But there is also a heightened sense of separation simply because we can’t see each other! That we can’t fly to overseas territories and destinations because of travel bans and restrictions is indirectly or directly contributing to the cultural frictions and the antagonism that constitute the state of world politics today.
A further note to add on to that though is just that even when we discard all the technical and communicative facilities — even if we set aside the differences between ZOOM and face-to-face communication — there is something quite unique about a world where most important political summits and meetings, and most communications between countries, are not taking place in person. Let’s not underestimate the fact that in-person meetings, often meetings where country leaders and politicians are the most frank with one another, are the most candid because of the lack of concerns about being eavesdropped upon and all these miscellaneous concerns that folks might have. But, in contrast, precisely because everything is now online and digitalised, ironically, I think there is a lower and decreased sense of security about communications and a corresponding increase in miscommunication, fumbling over interpretations of each others signals, and they can no longer settle disputes and disagreements from behind the scenes. The wariness of using even encrypted phones to call each other has left the world in a far worse place with respect to ‘track one diplomacy’ i.e. formal PTP, GTG governmental diplomacy. That’s a nuance I think that we ought to bear in mind when making sense of the escalation of tensions around the world, namely — but of course not limited to — the US and China, and the frosting of relations there.
And the final thing to note is the economy, or rather, the global economy. The economy wasn’t exactly in a bad shape in the run up to the end of 2019. Things were looking broadly alright, you know, it wasn’t necessarily perfect, but fundamentally the economy was intact and recovering from the previous shocks associated with geopolitical instability, uncertainty over Trump’s election and all of that and Brexit. So we were doing fine. But if you look at the economy now, the state of the global economy today — man, that’s difficult. That’s genuinely something that’s quite unnerving to watch. We see some of the worst recessions in the world’s history, not only in terms of the stock market, also recession with respect to manufacturing sectors, tourism sectors, retail sectors — and then the question becomes: what do we make of this? How are we going to deal with the inequalities that arise from this? And these are questions that we have to grapple with and think about when indeed looking at the world today.
Gabby: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I noticed you mentioned US/China relations — I’m really interested to hear your perspective on this, especially in light of not only Covid-19 but also the US election.
Brian: I think the first thing to note is that the legitimacy of the US world order, the legitimacy of the American political systems, that’s something that’s taken a pretty serious hit in light of the Covid pandemic, not just because of Trump’s really bizarre way of handling it, but also because folks are increasingly aware of the fact that, at the end of the day, democracy is one way of governance. I think it is the right way of governance, but a lot of folks in the world are increasingly rallying around the antithesis to it, or alternative views about democracy. And that is also the source of insecurity for the West, because if everything we’ve said so far is true, that given the decline of the Western order, there’s an existential angst about what the end of the Western order and hegemony would look like and I think folks are finally waking up to the fact that that is far closer and more imminent than they’d like it to be, especially in light of the economic inequalities, the structural problems that float to the surface, and also the ideological or conceptual defects that democracy has been shown to have and exhibit throughout these times of crisis and upheaval.
And that also connects me with the question you posed — a very good question — it will turn on the election, so to some extent having a Biden presidency would be helpful in just ensuring that innocent civilians and innocent third-parties aren’t impacted in that Thucydides Trap coming to fruition or playing out in reality. But it also doesn’t turn entirely on who becomes president: either way there will be a decline in US-China relations, and my feeling — this is just my personal take — is that China will eventually emerge with the upper hand after a decade or two. Just look at the economic fundamentals, and also look at the way the technology is rising and accelerating and growth and development within China and also look at the far more consolidated well-coordinated economic superstructure, and top-down approach that’s adopted. The end of the American era may not be pleasant for anyone, but it may well be inevitable, and may well be happening as we speak today.
How do you hope to personally harness the pandemic to create positive change?
Brian: So three things from me. The first is I’ve tried my best to capture and reflect the pandemic’s evolving tendencies from my own publications, both through the Oxford Political Review but also through our writings that engage explicitly or otherwise with questions on political systems and how countries ought to adapt in light of the Covid pandemic so it is through my scholarship that I want to make sense or enable the world to make sense of the crisis that’s going on. But on the second thought what I’ve been doing is medical philanthropy, so I’ve actually been coordinating medical supplies and relief efforts to channel resources and redirect resources away from countries where there is plenty of medical resources and supplies, and just redistribute them from donors who want to help and make an impact to countries and regions that are worst affected by the crisis, so I helped out with sourcing masks for Hong Kong in February, but I also have been avidly supporting the redirection of resources from Hong Kong to Portugal and Spain.
And the final thought revolves around just personal meditations. I don’t think I’ve been able to play a necessarily important role in the pandemic, but it has certainly forced me to reevaluate my life priorities and to rethink a lot of the assumptions that I’ve been making and holding about my friends, my relatives, my family, and has just enabled me to situate myself in terms of what really matters. And that to me is what’s most important: it’s the reflection — the thinking about what matters — that the pandemic has driven me to do.