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No pyrrhic victory
as Hong Kong burns

Fixing kinks in local governance and reforming Legco must be combined with massive social outreach to assuage teen rage before a real life video game goes off the rails.

By VIJAY VERGHESE
Hong Kong, October 2019

Peaceful Hong Kong protest march outside SOGO, Causeway Bay

Peaceful mid- 2019 protests like this one outside SOGO in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, have been eclipsed by violent mobs and weekend arson - Photo: Vijay Verghese

MASS social upheavals since the guillotine-crazed Jacobin Terror of the French Revolution have had a habit of getting a tad out of hand. Along with violently jettisoning the status quo they have demonstrated a perverse habit of devouring their own. A long list from Robespierre and Danton to Trotsky will attest to this. To be sure, liberté, égalité, fraternité is etched on our minds, an inspiration for generations. Yet, in the end, too many revolutions are better known for their gore not glory.

Small wonder governments have an inherent aversion to mobs no matter how exquisitely phrased their angst. And so too should Hong Kong’s demonstrators beware of becoming victims of their own excess. Popular support can be both fickle and fleeting.

Vijay Verghese

Vijay Verghese


Peaceful protests engendered empathy. The vandalism at subsequent outings has invited a harsher response and growing social ostracism. Recent attacks on individuals suspected of being China sympathisers are downright thuggish and can have no part in civilized society

Communist China is no stranger to student movements and violent protest. It was in many senses born out of such a movement on 4 May 1919 when students congregated in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to decry what they saw as a huge betrayal by Western powers and China’s then leaders in the appeasement of Japan after the First World War. The Communist Party of China diligently commemorates 4th May as a heroic struggle. In 1967 at the height of the Cultural Revolution chaos the CPC played an active role in the Hong Kong riots. But since the 1989 Tiananmen episode its appetite for such unmanaged revolutionary outpourings has considerably diminished.

Thus we arrive at Hong Kong’s muddled ‘revolution of our times’ – part social pressure (on the government, to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy enshrined in the Basic Law); part peaceful non-cooperation (now largely eclipsed as violence escalates); and part tiresome real life videogame (on the verge of going horribly wrong). Depending on whose views are canvassed, the term has varying connotations from extreme localism to freedom from a meddlesome and less-than-benign China. The end result is a vague aspiration for five (largely unattainable) demands and no rest in sight for a fatigued city that has lost patience with wanton MTR vandalism and arson.

What started out as an orderly civil disobedience movement has lost its moorings and purpose. Hong Kong’s version of street pressure has not followed the path of moral giants like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King whose ability to endure police excesses, incarceration and all manner of indignity without recourse to violence, enabled them to change the course of history.

Peaceful protests – like the original million-strong march on 9 June against the extradition bill – engendered empathy and solidarity. The violence and vandalism at subsequent outings has invited a harsher official response and growing social ostracism. More recent attacks on random individuals suspected of being agents provocateurs or China sympathisers are downright thuggish and can have no part in civilized society.

Whether one or two million marched is irrelevant. This is simply statistical legerdemain that proves little. What is pertinent is why a great many people marched (in trying conditions) and continue to do so, often in contravention of the law.

Electoral reform is long overdue. The Functional Constituencies – very much beholden to the state for licenses, tax breaks, favourable regulations and so on – play a mischievous role in stymieing democrats in the Legislative Council.

Electoral reform is long overdue. The Functional Constituencies – very much beholden to the state for licenses, tax breaks, favourable regulations and so on – play a mischievous role in stymieing democrats in the Legislative Council. While it is claimed they ensure ‘balanced participation’ in politics, FCs are essentially pliant vote banks for the government. Several companies and associations have a dotted line up to the same owner, concentrating power in the hands of a few tycoons who do not always serve the best interests of the city. It was the all-powerful property barons who in 1997 famously skewered the first CE Tung Chee-wah’s bold plan for 85,000 housing units a year – a fatal blunder in retrospect.

There is a strong case to be made for abolishing FCs and excising their pernicious influence. At very least they could be modestly democratised by expanding the ‘one association one vote’ concept to broad-based voting within each association or company to bring in thousands more into the process. Longer term, the principle of universal suffrage for the election of the CE is already enshrined in Article 45 of the Basic Law.

Broad dialogue on multiple fronts is necessary for the HKSAR Government to reach directly and deeply into society to tap into the pulse. Anyone who can play a useful role must be dragooned into this conversation. And any subsequent independent enquiry must apply itself to identifying structural weaknesses of ‘One Country Two Systems’ and local governance that have given rise to mass rage. It cannot get distracted apportioning blame.

Often touted as a neat solution, the paternal Singapore model is not one suited to Hong Kong’s feisty spirit or its freewheeling entrepreneurs who are at the core of its dynamism. Yet, some curtailment of civil liberties and freedom of speech is inevitable if Beijing is prodded into a crackdown as some protesters would like. Images of the PLA storming the streets to wage pitched battles with ‘heroic’ blackshirts excites youthful imagination as much as it roils the stomachs of those helming the territory’s plummeting economy. But inviting a hostile military into Hong Kong expressly to ‘hurt’ China with punitive trade tariffs and sanctions that may follow, is a nuclear option with no winners. This is angry teen logic at its worst.

Protesters must realise, and quickly, that escalating violence is not the insurance they once thought. Their battle is largely won and it is time to withdraw with dignity. They would do well to ponder how their ‘free Hong Kong’ fervour has already ended citizens’ freedom to commute, travel, go about daily business, secure a livelihood, and enjoy weekends without fear of arson and violence.

If Hong Kong sinks it will take all with it. This would not be a noble pyrrhic victory. Just chuckleheaded folly.


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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