It’s time to jaw-jaw and pass the protest baton to more experienced hands. Will the democrats step up to the plate as foreigners and Facebook get the blame for the unrest?
By VIJAY VERGHESE
Hong Kong, November 2014
Peak hour on one of Hong Kong's busiest roads - the blue tents on the right are classrooms where students are studying. - Photo: Vijay Verghese
IT IS TIME for Hong Kong’s politicians to pick up the students’ baton and carry forward their campaign to be heard. Not because the protests are grist to the pan-democrat mill and offer a temptingly large stick to beat the government with, but because the democratisation of Hong Kong is in everyone’s interests. It is a process that must be handled in a bipartisan manner for it to succeed.
The movement that attracted broad support, is becalmed for lack of direction, if not resolve, as it aims to strengthen the hand of all Hongkongers in having a say in their future by electing the right candidate as the next chief executive. The sticking point is not universal suffrage (which Beijing has accepted), but the manner in which the candidates will be selected by a ‘broadly representative’ council.
Having made a dramatic, if symbolic, gesture that the world has noted, it is time for the students to withdraw to their classrooms with this victory intact, handing over the dialogue to more experienced, and older, hands. Stretching things out will only invite a bruising that will render it a pyrrhic victory at best or a crushing failure if public opinion turns.
Lawmaker Regina Ip reportedly told the Legislative Council that the use of smartphones, Twitter, Google Maps and communication apps like Firechat, and Zello (a walkie-talkie application that was used in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution), were clear indicators of a foreign hand at work
Having a stake in their future is something all citizens of this thrumming metropolis must strive for. Some are reticent as they do not wish to incur Beijing’s wrath. Yet, if the episode has highlighted anything, it is that ire has been vented inwards at the city’s ‘elected’ representatives who have willy-nilly lost the plot and continue to pander to business interests at the expense of the growing underclass. It is underappreciated that this Hong Kong tale is neither anti-Beijing nor unpatriotic.
A strong and vibrant Hong Kong, confident in its future as a global competitor, greatly strengthens China’s case for regional leadership in its pursuit of soft power and ‘moral’ standing. There is no contradiction in ‘loving Hong Kong’ and ‘serving Beijing’.
The Mainland argument that the chief executive – and indeed all citizens – must ‘love Beijing’ is a diktat based as much on fear as on ignorance.
There is deep fear of the unpredictable nature of a democracy unleashed. It is a fear fuelled by ignorance. In its effort to please its master, the Hong Kong government – as the classic fawning courtier – has fed it a litany of half-truths that distorted reality, creating a cheery red-flag bubble that was rudely burst with the students’ arrival on the streets.
The press has covered all angles in a lively, thoughtful and provocative manner but the Mainland remains deeply distrustful of non-state media, which it accuses of Western bias. It has repeatedly hinted at ‘foreign interference’ in the Occupy Central pro-democracy agitation. Some law makers in Hong Kong have picked up this refrain though most, including the Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, are reluctant to provide evidence, stating the ‘time is not right’.
Others have presented a whimsical case. Former Secretary for Security, CEO hopeful and Hong Kong Legislative Council member, Regina Ip Lay Suk-yee, reportedly told the council on 30 October, 2014, that the use of smartphones, Twitter, Google Maps and communication apps like Firechat, and Zello (a walkie-talkie application that was used in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution), were clear indicators of a foreign hand at work. This immediately attracted comic ripostes with enquiries about whether Ms Ip’s pro-Beijing New People’s Party used carrier pigeons and if her active Facebook page implied she was being manipulated by external forces.
Conspiracy theorists even had a go at American saxophonist Kenny G who had earlier visited the protest site and tweeted, “I wish everyone a peaceful and positive conclusion to this situation.” He was reprimanded by Beijing for this rather banal pronouncement and later clarified on his Facebook page that his “impromptu visit to the site was just part of an innocent walk around Hong Kong.”
Unwilling or unable to pick up the right information from the Hong Kong episode, Beijing is increasingly unable to gauge the situation with clarity and, as with any general in an isolated war room, is liable to blunder egregiously. This could have serious consequences for Hong Kong.
The absence of meaningful political dialogue to both defuse tensions and to carry the discussions forward is a critical void that can only be filled politically, albeit in the limited manner that a limited political system will allow.
Narrow-band engagement, pitting police against protestors – while, remarkably, the city’s leaders from CEO to the police chief take a back seat – wrongly paints the situation as a ‘law and order’ problem rather than a ‘socio-economic’ manifestation. While vilifying a supposedly ‘illegal’ demonstration as the source of all violence and inconvenience, is one way to erode public support, it is disingenuous and dangerous. It is time to tackle the issues – affordable housing, jobs, education, language, and economic diversification that will limit dependence on real estate. Dealing with the symptom rather than the cause will make a pig’s breakfast of things.
Narrow-band engagement, pitting police against protestors – while, remarkably, the city’s leaders from CEO to the police chief take a back seat – wrongly paints the situation as a ‘law and order’ problem rather than a ‘socio-economic’ manifestation
Chief Executive CY Leung caused a furore when he remarked to foreign journalists that the introduction of public nomination for CE candidates would pervert the process due to the induction of "half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 a month." His fear? The poor would dominate politics. “It is entirely a numbers game,” he added, as detractors pointed to this further evidence of collusion between the government and big business.
Political cracks have emerged. The Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang Yok-sing told the South China Morning Post that there was room for a pan-democrat in the CE candidate line-up and warned that “Beijing would pay a heavy political price if a popular pan-democratic candidate was barred." Tsang has come out against the ‘foreign hand’ theory too. “I can’t see it happening,” he said in a Cable TV interview.
Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee who takes over the pro-Beijing Liberal Party’s chairmanship after James Tien Pei-chun resigned (following his sacking from the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, for urging CY Leung to step down), has urged Hong Kong’s chief executive to work at reconciliation and to handle dissent openly rather than ‘behind closed doors’ as Beijing would prefer.
Wise minds will discern that if left unresolved, simmering discontent could resurface in the run-up to 2047, or earlier, when this generation of students holds the reins of government as the city marks its historic ‘reunification’. In simple business terms, today’s children are tomorrow’s consumers. Luxury brands woo spoilt sprogs whom they hope to entice as permanent patrons. Hotels do this. Airlines do this. Motor car companies do this. Hong Kong’s leaders have been slow to grasp this, perhaps haunted by the memory of a former communist leader who flew dangerously close to a subversive student dream, lost his wings, and plunged to the ground. Deng Xiaoping protégé Zhao Ziyang, the disgraced General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, openly sympathised with the students at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, initially with some limited party support, but his approach cost him his job, and his place in history.
Anguished talk of a polarised Hong Kong splitting into yellow (democrat) and blue (police and government) camps evokes disturbing visions of Thailand’s red and yellow divide, but it is far too simplistic. Here, the yellows are the young and economically disenfranchised with the blues representing status quo, elites, wealth and property. Yet in Hong Kong, the fault lines are tenuous and will heal with good governance. Lest we forget, Hong Kong is a city, not a country, and in this dense urban landscape, everyone is a stakeholder with largely similar interests.
The protest may have been sidelined but fundamental, if opposing, issues have been forced to the surface. Now, the twain must meet, across a table. Not over a barricade. It will take political courage to stand up and report the true facts to Beijing – if indeed Beijing wishes to listen. But who will bell the cat?
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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