Does Hong Kong need more think tanks?
According to a Radio Television Hong Kong report, the Liberal Party said on Monday that the government should not bring in legislation enabling people to have their acquired or preferred gender recognised in law, as Hong Kong society doesn't accept the transgender community. Barrister Azan Marwah, who also spoke at the Legco meeting, said the government has a duty to take action to improve the lives of transgender people in the city. Dr. Robin Sarah Bradbeer of Professional Commons spoke on behalf of herself and the think tank Professional Commons and there was a powerful submission from the Hong Kong Bar Association. The various submissions can be found here.
This debate highlights the utility of think tanks. In the West, most but not all think tanks are organisations independent of the government. They perform research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, economics, and human rights. Certainly, important research is performed by Hong Kong's universities, Equal Opportunities Commission, and other organizations. Think tanks, however, can bring an added vigor to research. If they are not affiliated with the government, they have a freer hand to create and use research for advocacy purposes.
The rationale for think tanks is that they are idea factories -- sources of new thinking and innovative strategies that may not occur to or that may not be favored by governments, which tend to be conservative and self-perpetuating. In the United States and Canada, think tanks/advocacy organizations have played significant roles in galvanizing social tolerance. For example, in 1954, Thurgood Marshall and a team of NAACP attorneys won Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In this landmark decision, the Supreme Court held that segregation in public education violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. More recently, Freedom to Marry and other LGBT organizations helped lay the groundwork for the Supreme Court's ruling in 2015 legalizing same sex marriage nationwide. These organizations did not simply supply lawyers to argue cases. They performed research to convince stakeholders of the soundness of the reforms they proposed.
In the UK, there are organizations such as LGBT Consortium which describes itself "as a national membership organisation focusing on the development and support of LGBT groups, projects and organisations; so they can deliver direct services and campaign for individual rights."
The think tanks mentioned above play critical parts in moving public opinion and public policy makers in the direction of enlightened reform. They complement the efforts of direct services organizations that provide care to particular marginalized groups. Hong Kong is lucky to have fine organizations providing care to refugees, domestic helpers, stateless children, and others. The debate about transgender rights reminds us that think tanks can expand the toolkit.