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Bring out the Big Tent –
it’s time to talk

The city seems transfixed by symptoms, not the cure for endless student protest marches. Force is not the answer. This is not a law and order issue. It is society's distress call and it's time for cooler heads to talk.

By VIJAY VERGHESE
Hong Kong, August 2019

Hong Kong protesters scatter in Admiralty after police fires tear gas rounds and rubber bullets

June 2019 student protest ends in tear gas and rubber bullets at Admiralty as marchers scatter to flee the choking blue haze - Photo: Vijay Verghese

HONG KONG is adrift in uncharted waters. The uncommon tear-gas tango being played out on the city's streets from Wanchai and Central to the New Territories 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 display of leaderless 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 triad hooligans beat black-shirted protestors as well as casual commuters in an MTR station. This holds dangerous portents.

Vijay Verghese

Vijay Verghese


Government inaction is forcing a spontaneous movement underground, encouraging guerrilla tactics, eliciting calls to ‘free Hong Kong’ (Carrie Lam resign is passé) and moving the stage from peaceful parleys to a routine street slugfest

Government inaction and its patent inability to govern or protect its people – the thuggish 21 July 2019 Yuen Long MTR rampage just one chilling example – has served to increasingly brutalise a police force that has visibly tired of confrontation and doxing and is moving away from official playbooks into shadowy turf. It has eroded trust on all sides, hardened protestor resolve and shrunk differences between peaceful marchers and more extreme elements. It is forcing a spontaneous movement underground, encouraging guerrilla tactics, eliciting calls to ‘free Hong Kong’ (Carrie Lam resign is passé) and moving the stage from peaceful parleys to a routine street slugfest and strikes (including by civil servants).

The 27 July 2019 event to ‘visit and walk through Yuen Long’ as one student participant described it (an official march had been prohibited), ended in predictable clashes – tear gas, rubber bullets and sponge grenade rounds, as enraged police stormed up the MTR escalators to baton charge and pepper spray hemmed in protestors. It was an extraordinary scene.

Politics abhors a vacuum and Beijing is increasingly uneasy as symbols of its authority come under attack. References to the People’s Liberation Army are frequent and wistful. The PLA's Hong Kong garrison has even released a demo video of how it handles rioters and bad guys. 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 tortuous 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, which has in one fell swoop killed business, livelihoods, tourism receipts, and goodwill, and played directly into the Government’s ‘riot’ narrative.

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 nonviolent. 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.

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

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, their links to the community restored and, if substantiated, any murky goings-on dealt with in the strongest possible manner.

A fundamental problem with the sudden politicisation of Hong Kong – an avowedly apolitical financial entrepôt until 1997 – is the lack of precedent and any historical markers to chart progress. Just as viewers often mimic relationships on TV, politics in the territory has been largely copied (leading to shrill and misconceived cries of ‘foreign hand’ by the establishment). Civil disobedience in Hong Kong has a naïve romantic neo-convert tinge to it. That image is losing its lustre. It is part of the frustration felt by students who 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 wellbeing. Yet, romantic struggle requires a Great Evil to oppose in order to stir young hearts. This has pushed both sides to extremes. It is escalating street theatre at its most moving – 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, though she is clearly beholden to Beijing with little to no wiggle room. But an obdurate unsympathetic manner, government hubris, administrative paralysis in a time of extreme crisis, and a tin ear, have not helped.

Ms 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 after the 2003 snafu over a failed bid to introduce a National Security Bill (in line with Article 23 of the Basic Law that deals with prickly subjects like treason and sedition). 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 – entails identifying and tackling socioeconomic and political root causes head on. This is not a law and order issue even if it manifests as one. It is a profound cri de coeur from a society in tumult as a result of maladroit administration and lack of vision. No better time to grasp the nettle.

Vijay Verghese started out as a reporter for the Times of India, a national daily, in 1979. He moved to Bangkok and thence to Hong Kong in 1984 as editor and publisher of a range of news, business, travel and lifestyle publications including Business Traveller, HOLIDAY Asia, and Asian Business. He launched Dancing Wolf Media in 2002 and runs the online magazines SmartTravelAsia.com and AsianConversations.com when not dabbling in avatars, music and virtual guff.

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Ranjan Pal (13 August, 2019) – India
Well written and argued piece. I can't help thinking who is to bell the cat? Will the students allow the ringleaders among them to be tried in a court of law? And will the government agree to a rolling of the heads of those who were responsible? From having lived there for a decade in the run-up to the Handover, I know that for the Chinese (specially the older and more official ones) saving face is so much part and parcel of their being. Is there scope for an outside negotiator to come in and bring all parties into the tent? And most importantly will Beijing allow this and thereby acknowledge the failure of its strategy for Hong Kong? All big existential questions and no easy answers! – This comment has been edited
Paula Brittany (4 August, 2019) – Australia
I have been following the clashes in Hong Kong with great dismay. I love the city and enjoy its brisk can-do style. Good luck people. Hope things sort out.... somehow
Ruby Yeo (4 August, 2019) – Singapore
It is a shame to see this happening in HK. I visit frequently but have had to put off travel at least two times. My friends tell me they are not sure when a weekend will be protest-free. I sympathise with the students but don't see how this tussle can end well for them
Jonas Ackerman (4 August, 2019) – United Kingdom
Very balanced article but it does not appear any side in this drama is agreeable to a dialogue so where does this leave the city? The students cannot overthrow the government or effect a revolution. That is fanciful. Nor is it likely the government's heavy-handed approach will yield dividends. I agree someone needs to broker a truce. If Beijing steps in it will be all over for Hong Kong's freewheeling way of life I think
Jade (2 August, 2019) – Australia
Thanks for such an insightful read Vijay. This is complex territory and you're right - there is no better time to grasp the nettle.

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