(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 8 October 2014.)
The overseas media has dubbed the youth protest movement the “Umbrella Revolution.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The political aspiration of these youths and their supporters is not to overthrow the government, but to urge greater democracy in a society that is already extremely free. How can this be a revolutionary movement? It is a moral protest by idealists and students nurtured by an open and pluralistic society. But the movement is at risk of spinning out of control.
By all accounts the youths on the streets are good-natured and peaceful. They are not angry anxious crowds that have come to loot and burn. They are picking up the litter they create and sorting it for recycling. They have come to join a carnival, not a battlefield.
Not a Revolution
Hong Kong displays none of the characteristics of places where “people revolutions” take place. Unemployment here 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 Heritage Foundation, a conservative US think tank, has rated Hong Kong as the freest economy in the world for 20 years. Surely Hong Kong must be regarded as a very likable and livable city.
In the Philippines the “Yellow Revolution” of 1986 aimed to overthrow Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorial rule after Benito Aquino was assassinated in 1983. In Czechoslovakia the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989 sought to overthrow communist rule in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The common goal of Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” in 2003, Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” in 2004, Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” in 2010, Egypt’s “Lotus Revolution” in 2011, and of many other “people revolutions” is to overthrow an oppressive government that has suppressed all forms of liberty – political, economic, and civil. Hong Kong does not share any aspects of this goal.
The presence of a free media and the right to free assembly have created a highly pluralistic society here, where civic groups are free to march in protest and openly demonstrate on the streets. The police have been very restrained compared to those seen elsewhere and to some of the protests I participated in as a student in the US over 40 years ago.
Life in Hong Kong is not bad at all. Even today it is the envy of the rest of the world. Only, our politics is 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 the city’s future development that is morally defensible and politically acceptable to the various interests in Hong Kong and to Beijing.
The Basic Law in principle settled this political question when it was promulgated in 1990, at least to a very considerable degree. 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 old, presumably settled 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 because of the lack of any 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.
Unfortunately, these youths are being urged by adult politicians in the opposition to follow the same old narrative they have promoted but failed to convince others to adopt. Even more worrying are the goons and unsavory characters who are provoking youths to shed their good-natured and peaceful composure with abuse, threats, and violence. Adult political brinksmanship threatens to push the current saga iout of control.
Hong Kong is a well-developed pluralistic society. Different individuals and groups coexist and often hold different and opposite views. As long as these are private views, there is no question of conflict. But when they become public views, and especially when they have negative private consequences for those who do not share these views, then tolerance must be exercised. There is a need to adopt a common political narrative of Hong Kong’s future to address its deep economic and social contradictions.
Patience, however, cannot be taken for granted and cannot last forever. So there is a time limit to how long deep economic and social contradictions can be ignored before another? tipping point is reached. By the same token, protest movements are also time limited before they turn sour and achieve the opposite effect of what the organizers intended.
Dynamics of the Protests
Given increasing public impatience with the disruption to daily life caused by the protesters occupying the streets, the movement will probably and hopefully come to an end soon (this article was completed on 6 October before midnight). How it will end is extremely important. The real tragedy would be if it ends in a way that leads to the deeper polarization of society.
The early decision to call for the resignation of Leung Chun-Ying and the withdrawal of the 31 August 2014 resolution of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress cannot be taken seriously. It produces a message that misleads others about the movement’s objectives. Hong Kong society is highly pluralistic and its diversity is essential for its vitality. The latter has to be preserved by building a broad consensus, and not by imposing any single view.
For any protest movement, radicalization is not surprising. The initial objectives of the movement were much more modest. Even the Occupy Central movement had very limited objectives being unsure of the political support they would receive. But nascent movements often produce rhetoric that is very divorced from reality. Their words sound fiery only because their aim is to rally supporters. The organizers of the recent protest movements were never sure how much support they could eventually mobilize in society.
Although the current protest movement is one with a largely moral appeal, it is being driven by momentum and is constantly in danger of spinning out of control. A telltale sign of this is that protest groups at different locations are setting their own political objectives.
As a loosely coordinated coalition, there is also has a tendency to become ever more radical in order to keep the coalition together. This condition may be exacerbated by rivalry among different groups pressing for their own political objectives. If the establishment and Beijing fail to understand the sensitivity of this situation and seeks only to exploit it to their advantage, then there is an even greater danger that the protesters could be provoked out of control.
And when the movement spins out of control, it will bring grief not only to those who are on the streets, but also to their families, friends, and teachers. It will also hurt those who are against the protesters because society will become deeply polarized and there will be no escape. It would be a grievous tragedy if a carnival were turned into a battlefield.
Time for Restoration
Although the confrontation on the streets is still ongoing, healing should begin now. The events of the past week should be a tipping point for change. Government must pledge to conduct a genuine dialogue with the students and the public on matters relating to democratic reform that are within the city’s prerogative, before the next stage of political consultation to complete the “Five Step” process resumes.
The protest movement originally started as a civil disobedience movement to Occupy Central. The leaders pledged that it would be a movement for peace and love, and that those who took part in the act would have to make the sacrifice for violating the law. Their message has been heard in abundance. Is it not time for them to fulfill their pledge and surrender to the law?
If and when the dialogue between government and the students begins, it must avoid at all cost the posturing of the fateful encounter between Wu’er Kaixi and Li Peng, when both sides cared more about speaking to their own constituents than to each other. There was only mutual contempt between them, even in their body language and attire. Former US President Ronald Reagan had a plaque placed atop his desk. “There is no limit to what a man can do, or where he can go,” it proclaimed, “if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”
The paramount concern for society is the safety of those on the streets. The protesters should withdraw, at least in part, for their own safety and for life in the city to resume.
The healing process could rekindle a common political narrative for Hong Kong’s future. All sides have to demonstrate goodwill for all of Hong Kong. The “establishment narrative” and the “bottom up narrative” should be revisited. Their proponents need to hear the voices that have been expressed on the streets and realize that building a political consensus in a pluralistic society cannot be put aside and ignored. 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 the youths on our streets and also those who have 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.