Home Truths for Hong Kong

DH – Hong Kong

Slippery slope? Yes. On the brink of disaster? Probably not.

Just ahead of the New Territories East by-election result, one newspaper (SCMP) quoted an expert as saying that a vote of 15 percent or more for Edward Leung, the Indigenous candidate (or ‘radical separatist’ in Beijing speak), would be a wake-up call for Beijing. Well, Leung got his 15 percent and the expert got it wrong. It is primarily a wake-up call for Hong Kong.

Edward Leung’s result was undeniably significant. The UK Independence Party that wants the UK to leave the European Union achieved just 12.5 percent in the 2015 general election. Now a referendum is being held on 23 June of this year to decide whether or not the UK does just that.

There will be no such outcome in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is not a sovereign state. It is a part of China and will remain so. Yet this does not make Leung’s vote irrelevant.

At one level it is indicative of general discontent, a protest vote. At another it, it demonstrates a dangerous level of fantasy about the political options available to Hong Kong. It invites the very outcome it seeks to avoid: increasing control of Hong Kong by Beijing.

The harder people push back against Beijing the more Beijing will intrude. And the issue that above all others that will provoke them is independence., more so when reinforced by a taste for violence, as in Mong Kok.

So yes, the dynamic of Hong Kong prompting tighter control by Beijing is a very slippery slope. But it is not yet a disaster. However, it does prompt the question of how the slide may be arrested. First, some general principles.

The language of public discourse needs to change. References to a ‘deeply divided’ society, ‘pro and anti Beijing’ parties, the need for ‘consensus’ on major issues are unhelpful, misleading or plain wrong.

All societies are deeply divided, by demographics, gender, culture, abilities, interests and aspirations. Some might call that diversity. In Hong Kong it is merely futile, public hand wringing, a substitute for recognising social and economic issues that require policy solutions. Debating, creating and implementing such policies is what governments, bureaucracies and politicians are supposed to do.

‘Consensus’ is a curse. On any political issue of substance in any society it will never exist. Seeking consensus is procrastination by another name.

‘Pro or anti Beijing’ is a sterile debate. It crowds out consideration of many issues that trouble Hong Kong people: the gap between the rich and poor, the cost of housing, an aging population, a slowing economy, employment opportunities for the young, for example.

Recasting the terms of public discourse is a challenging, slow process. Here are some suggested starting points.

The Hong Kong Government must start actively building support for its policies in Legco. On any given bill there will be those who will oppose, those who will support and those who are open to persuasion. Identifying potential supporters, liaising with them and even accepting proposed amendments, will expedite a legislative programme.

The Government should stop doing stupid stuff. Whatever his political views, appointing Johannes Chan to an administrative post at Hong Kong University would have had no impact on the activism of students. Appointing Arthur Li did. It provoked radicalism. An entirely counterproductive exercise.

Legco is a mess. The Pan-Dems are a loose association of disparate bodies lacking the resources of a proper political party, limiting their ability to generate solid policies. Thus their positions represent the lowest common denominator (we hate CY and he must resign; we want universal suffrage now and will filibuster until we get it). They should initiate internal discussions about forming a party, even if it means losing a few people at their extreme fringes.

The leadership of the DAB stretches the definition of credible. They, too, need a major policy refresh in order to recruit new talent.

A desirable consequence of such developments should be an improvement in Legco behaviour, recognition that a well-timed witticism more effectively deflates an opponent than a poorly aimed banana. One can hope.

Last, all of us need to recognise that the Basic Law is Hong Kong’s constitution that protects among other things our freedom of speech and assembly. And it is not a document that can be cherry picked. Quite how Benny Tai, a constitutional lawyer, persuaded himself that Article 45 of the Basic Law could encompass a free and open choice of candidates in the 2017 CE election remains a mystery.

No doubt there are other and better solutions than those outlined above. But recognition that Hong Kong has the ability to break free from the present, sterile public discourse and revive its creativity and dynamism would be a great starting point.

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