Hong Kong must not stop self-flagellation

I refer to the 29 Oct 2014 Straits Times column “Hong Kong must stop self-flagellation” by Mr Tom Plate.

Although history’s future judgment cannot offer current value, history is replete with many past judgments that can offer current value.

Wasn’t it the breakdown of law and order and erosion of decent respect for legitimate authority in the original British colonies of America that led to the birth of the United States? So instead of taking issue with the factual correctness of Hong Kong’s breakdown of law and order and erosion of decent respect for legitimate authority, Mr Plate should instead take comfort from the factual correctness that it was through such things that American independence was born.

There is no need for an analogy or situation to perfectly resemble Hong Kong in order for it to be applicable. Puerto Rico for example is under US sovereignty but gets full unrestricted elections of its own. Singapore in 1959 also serves as a good example. We were a state of our own under British sovereignty possessing full internal self-government and unfettered right to our own elections. Only defense and foreign affairs matters came under the British. That would be a good arrangement for Hong Kong today. Another example would be the Principality of Monaco which is a sovereign country under the protection of the French or the Principality of Andorra which has links to both France and Catalonia but which too has full unfettered elections of its own.

Instead of ridiculing Hong Kong as the spoiled prodigy that kept demanding for special treats, Mr Plate should instead take heed of the factual correctness of America too being the spoiled prodigy of England that kept demanding for special treats until it ended up fighting and prevailing over its parent.

The story of Hong Kong did not begin with Deng Xiaoping but with Emperor Daoguang. It was during Daoguang’s reign that Hong Kong was forcibly ceded to UK. So instead of asking what Deng would have done if he was alive today, why not ask what Daoguang would have done instead? He would have required all Chinese, including Deng if he was still alive, to fashion pigtails and kowtow to him. That of course would have been silly just as it is silly to ask what Deng would have done.

If Deng had been the uncle of eternal patience, surely he wouldn’t have ordered the Tiananmen massacre would he?

Disruption to Hong Kong’s adult economy is akin to Occupy Wall Street’s disruption to New York’s adult economy except that in both cases adults, even very senior ones partook in those disruptions. Mr Plate doesn’t have to look very far to understand if public space activity would be patiently and lengthily permitted in Los Angeles. He only has to look at New York.

If Mr Plate feels that good, tough decisions have ratcheted up tensions, then surely bad, soft decisions would bring about his so-called “higher level of calm and consensus”? Tom has in fact answered his own question – the solution to Hong Kong’s tensions lies in bad, soft decisions.

If as Mr Plate suggests, these ‘street circuses’ succeed in bringing about a plenary review by the community, wouldn’t that amount to some level of success by the protestors? How would that be considered a waste of time, energy or spirit or for that matter stupid or dispiriting?

Although Tung Chee Hwa retains Beijing’s trust, he is nonetheless a Beijing chosen candidate. Isn’t Beijing chosen candidature the bear bug of the entire Hong Kong issue?

Many things in life like the butterfly must undergo suffering first before transforming into something more beautiful. Cutting down Hong Kong’s self-flagellation prematurely will also cripple its transformation into something bigger that awaits history’s future judgment.

Straits Times, Hong Kong must stop self-flagellation, 29 Oct 2014

History rarely moves in ways simple enough to be wholly comprehensible at the time. Even our best journalism takes but close-up snapshots – never the long view.

What observers and commentators make of what is happening in Hong Kong is not, in any complete sense, what history will eventually make of it. Historical meaning is elusive without the perspective of time, which is precisely what we don’t have at the very moment we need it most. The inescapable flaw of history’s future judgment is its inability to offer current value.

So the question becomes what is to be concluded about Hong Kong right now, in the unfocused, semi-darkness of the moment? Some observers view the struggle of the “pro-democracy” street protesters as the classic diorama of good guys against bad guys. This is obviously simplistic but emotionally appealing. Others view the recent turmoil as the breakdown of law and order and the erosion of a decent respect for legitimate authority. This is factually correct, but is emotionally unappealing. And it is beside the point, which is: Where do Beijing and Hong Kong go from here and in what civilised manner do they do it?

One has the sense that this really is new political terrain – that brilliant Hong Kong is sui generis, one of a kind, resistant to obvious analogies, a situation not really like anything else. The basic but special demographics and geography of Hong Kong place this little gem as close to mainland China as you can get without falling over into Guangzhou and yet, for a long time, sovereign power was absurdly distant.

After the sensible Thatcher government accepted that it had to give it back, the sensible Deng Xiaoping imagined a Hong Kong embraced without rancour or fuss into the overall Chinese family, even if it proved the case that this spoiled prodigy would incessantly demand special treats. Which, more or less, it has, and more or less incessantly.

Were Deng alive today, would he take the rod to the spoilt child? Or shake his head knowingly, the uncle of eternal patience? So far, at least, the Beijing of today has mostly left the official reacting to the local Hong Kong authorities, even as students, among others, continue to play in the streets, freeze traffic, disrupt the adult economy and disrupt domestic tranquillity. Would such public-space activity be so patiently and lengthily permitted in Los Angeles where I reside?

Beijing is understandably perturbed by the protest against its judgment regarding the rules for the 2017 election, in which everyone in Hong Kong will be able to vote but not everyone will be able to run. It regards its rule making as well within its sovereign power.

Pushing negotiations with the upstart protesters down to the working level of the special administrative region itself is tactically correct and within the markers of “one country, two systems”, the governing code endorsed by the late Deng which, though battered, is anything but dead. But there is an operational problem: The local Hong Kong government would appear to have lost too much moral – or at least persuasive – authority.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying, who took office in 2012 and early on made some good, tough policy decisions, has inadvertently ratcheted up the tensions. Certainly, his public comment, in which he openly worried over the consequences of permitting the poor to have as much influence over public policy as the elite, was not helpful or calming. It is hard to imagine any responsible Communist Party official in Beijing uttering something like that.

Beijing might quietly want to note that Mr Leung attained the highest office in Hong Kong via an election nominating process that in part will carry through to 2017, despite the grandiose and welcome opening to universal voting. The danger with that is that Hong Kong and Beijing may never gain the kind of inspired leadership both deserve and the tricky “one country, two systems” requires. Perhaps the process of selection should get a second look. A plenary session of review, perhaps a community-at-large process taking even many months, hosted at one of Hong Kong’s universities, would hardly seem more of a waste of time, energy and spirit than these stupid and dispiriting street circuses.

To this end, why not ask Mr Tung Chee Hwa, China’s first chief executive (1997-2005), to chair the review? With his timely and obviously good-willed calls for calm and reason, Mr Tung, who – crucially – retains Beijing’s trust, offers the people of Hong Kong very good reason indeed to listen to him with special attentiveness.

There may be some room for navigation between what Beijing has proposed and what some Hong Kong locals prefer. Surely the time for a higher level of calm and consensus is ripe. The territory and mother China should be working together on ameliorating the social and economic pressures threatening to pull Hong Kong down far more dramatically and dangerously than today’s governance dispute. Hong Kong should get its act together and cut down on the self-flagellations.

The writer is a career journalist, Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and author of In The Middle Of China’s Future (Marshall Cavendish).


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