A Time to Heal

Hong Kong has been seriously damaged by the events of the last 12 months, and its people have been badly hurt too. The most urgent need now is for us to heal – our economy, our political fabric, our community.

Most Hongkongers instinctively understand this need for healing, and that very realisation will have a significant bearing on the outcome of the upcoming Legislative Council elections. How should the blue and yellow camps position themselves to secure maximum public support at the ballot box? The answers are different because they each start from different positions.

Let us look first at the economy. There have been three hammer blows: the political disturbances; the Sino-US trade war; the coronavirus pandemic. The first is temporarily dormant but could flare up again at any time; the negative impacts of the second are still working their way through supply chains; the third has now put the entire global economy in a tailspin. There is a serious danger in the short term of a global economic recession. Governments worldwide are rolling out massive public spending packages to try to minimise the damage.

Nobody knows for sure when the medical experts will succeed in wrestling the spread of COVID-19 to a halt. But one thing we can say for certain now is that there will be profound long term effects on the tourism and travel industries. These are important elements of our economy. Another of our major business activities is retail sales, which depend in large part on visitor purchases. So for us this is a double whammy.

Our unemployment rate is likely to go through the roof. Some have speculated it could rise from the current 3.7% to as much as five. Personally I think we would be lucky if it doesn’t hit double figures. Too much? American Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is warning the Senate failure to pass the spending bill now before Congress could see 20 per cent unemployment there. Even allowing for a degree of hyperbole he is right to be worried. The difference is that the American economy is largely domestic and depends on foreign trade to a much lesser extent. For us, foreign trade is our lifeblood and constitutes several times our GDP. If the US economy catches a cold, ours will get pneumonia.

The economy should be an area of great concern to the pan democratic camp. Although there are several causes of the economic slowdown and no one can weight them with certainty, nonetheless the political disturbances are undoubtedly a contributing factor. The leaders of the moderate camp have so far refused to distance themselves from the violence and vandalism of the hard core black shirts in the interests of solidarity. That is a luxury they can no longer afford. Leaders of all the “yellow” political parties must come out now and make clear there must be no return to violence while the economy is so fragile irrespective of the actual date the virus is contained.

Behind the scenes they should be urging the black shirts to make a virtue of necessity: tell the government it has six months to address seriously the outstanding political demands and promise peace between now and election day: a truce to give the administration time to do the right thing. Many members of the public were prepared to tolerate the criminal damage to public and private property with unemployment at three per cent. They will not be so indulgent when the figure is two or three times that level and tens of thousands are out of work. The yellow camp needs to create that space now.

The damage to our political system is entirely the responsibility of the government. The leadership insisted on bulldozing ahead with very sensitive legislation without proper consultation and in the face of widespread concern and overwhelming – and overwhelmingly peaceful – opposition. They did so with the full public support of those in the blue camp. The latter now need to redeem themselves. There is a simple way for them to do so. Opinion polls consistently show that 80 per cent of the community want a fully independent Commission of Inquiry, headed by a senior judge, to investigate the whole saga. The blues should come out unequivocally now and say they favour the idea. Their support can be contingent on the terms of reference including the political process which brought us to the present situation, use of violence by the protesters as well as allegations of excessive use of force by the police, reports of outside funding etc.

Up to now, some blues have been offering the alternative of a Legco enquiry, but this will not carry the same weight. Meanwhile the government has been hiding behind the promise of the IPCC report. Originally due last December it slipped to February and has now slipped further to April. I wonder if we will ever see it. I wonder if it will be worth reading.

If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well, as my grandmother used to say. Do the job properly, get witnesses under oath in front of a judge.

On the social front, there is a lot of work to do for both sides. Some blues continue to call for more prosecutions. Some yellows say it is reasonable for restaurants to deny service to putonghua speaking customers. At a time when the restaurant trade is seeking assistance from public funds to tide them over loss of business, that is an interesting stance. A democratic leader, Richard Tsoi, courageously spoke up against such practice on principle, and was immediately shot down by his own colleagues. I wonder if these people are familiar with the expression “shooting oneself in the foot”.

Hong Kong voters are principled. Unlike some of the people who seek to represent them. There is much work for both camps in the next six months. Healing takes time. The process should start right now.