Bring out the Big Tent

Hong Kong is adrift in uncharted waters. The uncommon tear-gas tango being played out on the city’s streets poignantly shows it has been a fast and brutal slide from the high life to high dudgeon. 

As with the 2014 “Occupy”, a mass seemingly disciplined movement has dribbled into a meandering leaderless display of angst with no clear long-term aim. Small fringe groups repeatedly break off from peaceful marches like malign free radicals roaming the city’s financial arteries seeking futile confrontation. The government has curiously all but abdicated the stage creating an even bigger leadership vacuum. And a once professional police force, maligned and under pressure, stands by as violent hooligans beat black-shirted protestors as well as casual commuters in an MTR station. This holds dangerous portents.

Politics abhors a vacuum and Beijing is increasingly uneasy as symbols of its authority come under attack. With protesters fleeing to Taiwan, purportedly for asylum, events have spilled into the regional arena adding pressure on cross-strait tensions.

It is time for the government to reach out across the divide to fashion a bridge — seeking help from universities, politicians of all hues, Christian leaders, labour heads and business stalwarts, and anyone who may be in a position to help. This is not a time for bruised egos, face, shows of state power, petulance, or PR spin. It is a time for big-tent action across a table — no matter how acrimonious — with transparency, and with the media present. 

Bringing these disparate views into a single room means certain ground rules must be clearly understood and firmly enforced. Hong Kong’s “rule of law” must be upheld at all costs. This is the glue that binds the fabric of this complex territory. The Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution that emerged from white-knuckle Sino-British talks and received a tacit nod from major powers, must be adhered to. 

Protestors who have broken the law and vandalised public buildings like the Legislative Council (regardless of whether they were lured in as a part of government strategy to erode public support) must face their charges in a court of law. No country takes an attack on its seat of power lightly. The students are right to protest a hastily devised extradition bill but terribly wrong to cross the line when it comes to violence. To argue the damage is an aberration by a small faction is immaterial now. The entire movement has been tarred by that brush, in one fell swoop killing business, tourism receipts, and goodwill.

Men in white T-shirts and carrying poles, seen in Yuen Long after attacking anti-extradition bill demonstrators at a train station in Hong Kong
Fleeing to Taiwan is not an option. A government in exile —something deracinated dissidents often fancy over time though not as yet in this case — would be an incendiary notion. They must face the music at home. Civil disobedience as espoused by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi or a Martin Luther King entailed long stints in prison where moral authority was incubated. They were non-violent. But they broke what they deemed were restrictive and egregious laws. They knew their actions had consequences. They didn’t slip away to Bermuda for a martini.

The government for its part must stop dancing around the issues with semantics. It has impressed none and frustrated all. If the extradition bill is truly dead, then the chief executive must take it off the table. There can be no ambiguity. The police must end their petulant behaviour and get back to serving and protecting, as they have done in a clean and exemplary fashion since the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) was instituted in 1974 to excise graft from the ranks. An independent commission of enquiry would be welcomed to identify erring officers and put paid to idle scuttlebutt. The morale of those in uniform must be rebuilt.

A fundamental problem with the sudden politicisation of Hong Kong — an avowedly apolitical financial entrepôt until 1997 — is the lack of precedent and history or any markers to chart progress. Just as viewers often mimic relationships on TV (Friends was one striking example), politics in the territory has been largely copied and has a naïve romantic neo-convert tinge to it. That image may be losing its lustre and is part of the frustration as students realise that a crowd, however well intentioned, cannot simply dictate terms. 

There is rule of law. There are courts. There is procedure. That’s where the battle must be joined if the city is to protect its fine institutions and future well-being. Romantic struggle requires a Great Evil to oppose in order to stir young hearts. And thus the good-vs-evil battle plays out weekly on Hong Kong streets shrouded in tear gas. It is street theatre at its most moving — both intriguing and worrisome, given its unpredictable nature and the absence of a coherent plot. Hong Kong’s embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has been pilloried as a stooge and a monster. She is neither. But an obdurate manner, government hubris, and a tin ear have not helped.

Lam would do well to resign after a face-saving cooling down period (which also limits the damage to Beijing) much like former CE Tung Chee-hwa in March 2005 for “health” reasons. There is a precedent for retreat. But any cooling down period will require some government heads to roll right away. The police chief and the secretary for justice are prime candidates. It will help bring cooler heads to the table to revisit grievances and offer reassurance. That is the price of peace. Any other alternative is too grim to contemplate. 

While the process of selecting a new CE may open a fresh can of worms for some parties given the current swing away from China-sympathetic politicians, it represents the fresh start this city sorely needs. Dealing with the “free radicals” on the streets and student suicides — both symptoms of a deeper malaise — means identifying and tackling the problems head on. This is not a law and order issue even if it manifests as one. It is time to grasp the nettle.

The author is a Hong Kong-based journalist and the Editor of AsianConversations.com and SmartTravelAsia.com