The Road to Hell

If there was one point on Hong Kong’s road to hell when things might have turned out differently, it was surely the evening of 9 June.

There had been many mistakes in the weeks leading up to that night, and there would be many more in the weeks that followed, but that was the pivotal point. The biggest public protest demonstration since establishment of the SAR in 1997 had just finished and many of the marchers were still on their way home when the announcement was made that it had all been in vain. Notwithstanding the large number of participants, the government was not going to pause for second thoughts but rather would bulldoze on with the second reading of the extradition bill a few days later. A different decision that evening could have led to a completely different outcome. But it was not to be. From then on it was all downhill.

But it’s no use crying over spilt milk. We have to deal with the situation as it has developed, and it looks pretty grim. We have a political crisis, that has grown into a security one, which is fast becoming an economic one. In the next few months, many full-time workers will be downgraded to part-time ones, or even laid off completely. Hundreds of small and medium sized firms will close, wiping out the savings of the families concerned.

The economic situation is bad but perversely it is the easiest to fix. Hong Kong’s economy is very robust and will recover quickly once the security situation has stabilised. Reversing the dire security situation in turn depends on finding an adequate response to the political issues that are still live and have not been put to rest by the belated decision to finally use the word “withdraw” in the context of the dead and suspended extradition legislation.

The government needs to seriously ask itself why, four months after the troubles began, so many Hong Kong people from all walks of life continue to support the protesters despite their violent attacks on police and repeated vandalism of public assets. These are not normal Hong Kong behaviour and indeed completely out of character for the vast majority.

There are three underlying problem areas which existed before the ill-fated extradition legislation. They are: disappointment at the slow pace of political reform and progress towards universal suffrage; outrage at the enormous and increasing disparity in wealth, crystallised by the absurd property price levels; and friction between Hongkongers and mainlanders in the course of increasing social interaction.

Time and more sensitive handling will cause the third of these to melt away in due course so I will delve more deeply into the first two.

The chief executive is in theory accountable to both the Central People’s Government and the people of Hong Kong. In fairness we have to acknowledge that it is not easy to strike this balance and In practice most locals see our first four chief executives as being more focussed on the first. When the extradition bill was first published, with its extraordinarily short consultation period, it was interpreted as being another chapter in that story. The significance of the 9 June protest was that Hong Kong people wanted to send a message to the chief executive not to forget that she was also accountable to them. Moreover, they saw that they could not rely on an unrepresentative legislature to halt what they saw as a reckless move by the executive.

An immediate move to full universal suffrage, as demanded by some protesters, is not practicable. But to maintain that now is not the right time to talk about political reform is also unsustainable: now is precisely the right time that we need to be seen to be moving forward. Most Hong Kong people would probably accept a serious declaration of intent in this area. They will not be persuaded by a complete and indefinite standstill.

It must be clear to everyone by now that our community will never address wealth disparity issues properly while vested interests control the legislature by virtue of their domination of the Functional Constituencies.

It is the same with the widespread calls for the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry. It is possible to make a case that this would best be held later, when emotions have cooled and the streets are calmer. It is not possible to argue convincingly that one can never, or should never, be established. When there has been a political disaster on the scale of the present one it is quite normal in the Hong Kong system to set up such an inquiry. A public commitment now to do so early next year would address this issue to the satisfaction of most people. It should cover the political process that brought about the catastrophe, the violence by all parties, and the repeated allegations – so far without any compelling evidence – of foreign black hands. Get people under oath in front of a judge and let’s get to the bottom of it.

We need to send an urgent message to all involved: you will be held to account for your actions.

There are two other things we should be doing as soon as possible: first, introduce a short stand-alone law to ban the wearing of masks on protest marches. If you are not prepared to show your face, don’t bother to show up. If you have the flu, stay home in bed. Secondly, we need all those arrested to quickly face a court. If that means a crash programme of hiring more magistrates from other common law jurisdictions, and night courts, then so be it. We cannot afford to spend the next five years looking on as verdicts dribble out.

Our government needs to bear in mind two things. There will never be security solutions to political problems. And just because your opponents are asking for something doesn’t automatically mean it is the wrong thing to do.