(This essay was published in the South China Morning Post on 8 October 2014.)
The overseas media has dubbed the youth protests the “Umbrella Revolution.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Their political aspiration is not to overthrow the government, but to urge greater democracy in a society that is already extremely free. Nonetheless, the movement is at risk of spinning out of control.
By all accounts the youths on the streets are good-natured and peaceful. They have come to join a carnival, not a battlefield.
Hong Kong displays none of the characteristics of “people revolutions” seen elsewhere. Unemployment is low, economic and civil liberties are well respected, the rule of law is upheld, and the government, though not popularly elected, cannot be described as oppressive and unaccountable.
The only problem is that our politics are deadlocked and politicians quarrel incessantly. This is not unique to Hong Kong. It happens in many other mature democracies. In Hong Kong, political deadlock is the result of the inability to find a common narrative on Hong Kong’s future development that is morally defensible and politically acceptable to the various interests in Hong Kong and to Beijing.
The Basic Law settled this political question in principle when it was promulgated in 1990. But since then, the deepening economic and social contradictions in Hong Kong society brought about by China’s opening and economic globalization have not been addressed. This has created new political problems and unfortunately also revived older ones.
The events of the past week are the unfortunate culmination of these new and old local political conflicts, which have reached a tipping point after no visible progress in almost two decades. Those in power and those in the opposition have not been able to bridge the divide that separates them.
Young people have lost patience with quarrelling adult politicians obsessed with their own agendas. They are assuming the political and moral high ground that has been vacated by their elders. Their innocence and idealism is a breath of fresh air, but these qualities alone do not produce a common political narrative for Hong Kong’s future.
The early decision to call for the resignation of Leung Chun-Ying and the withdrawal of the 31 August resolution of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress is unrealistic. It is also at odds with the more modest initial objectives of the students and the Occupy Central movement. This is not surprising. Nascent movements often produce fiery rhetoric to rally supporters. But diversity is essential for Hong Kong’s vitality and must be preserved by building a broad consensus, not imposing any single view.
Although the occupation of the streets is still ongoing, healing should begin now. The events of the past week should be a catalyst for change. It would be a grievous tragedy if the carnival turned into a battlefield, and society was polarized further.
Government must pledge to conduct a genuine dialogue with the students in public on matters relating to democratic reform that are within the city’s prerogative, before the next stage of political consultation resumes.
The protesters should adhere to their leaders’ pledges that this is a civil disobedience movement for peace and love, and that they will accept the consequences of their illegal actions. The protesters should withdraw, at least in part, for their own safety and for life in the city to resume.
If and when dialogue between government and the students comes, it must avoid the posturing of the fateful encounter between Wu’er Kaixi and Li Peng, who cared more about speaking to their constituents than to each other.
All sides must demonstrate goodwill and seek to rekindle a common political narrative for Hong Kong’s future. The “establishment narrative” and the “bottom up narrative” should be revisited. Their proponents should listen to the voices expressed on the streets and realize they cannot sidestep the need to build a political consensus. Forcing a political opponent to succumb to one’s will is very costly for society.
There will be much restorative work to be done with Hong Kong youths, both those on our streets and those who stayed at home or in school. If we fail to do this, then the events of the past week portend an ominous future. Hong Kong can work. It is time to make this happen by all parties giving some ground. Let us return our streets to their normal state.