The Hong Kong body politic has a serious underlying health condition. That makes our city particularly vulnerable to political viruses that arise from time to time. Assuming we survive the current national security flu outbreak – quite a big assumption in present circumstances -- then we will still need to go back and address the underlying problem.
The simple truth is our administration only knows how to administer, it doesn’t know how to govern. The opposition knows how to obstruct, but doesn’t know how to work the system to get things done. In short, we have a bad case of chronic immaturity syndrome.
The present bout of political estrangement began early last year with an attempt by the government to ramrod through a major piece of legislation with just 20 days public consultation. It supported its proposed course of action with two dubious assertions by way of justification: “Only with this comprehensive reform can we send the suspect back to Taiwan” (Not true, there was a mechanism in existing law for one-off extraditions); “the case is urgent as the suspect could flee Hong Kong” (Not correct, the existing mechanism could be operated before the suspect’s scheduled release from custody).
When one million people marched in the street in early June last year to show their disapproval of the proposed legislation, the administration had no idea what to do. Its first instinct was to arrogantly ignore the evidence of its own eyes and attempt to crash on regardless. The students prevented enactment by surrounding the Legco building to block access, and a few days later there was an even bigger demonstration to celebrate.
At this point a proper government would have paused for thought and tried to reach out to find possible compromises. Instead the administration dithered for weeks, declining even to use the word “withdraw” in connection with the doomed bill until it became a laughing-stock. In the absence of any meaningful dialogue, the situation spiralled out of control. Some protesters started to use violence, including widespread throwing of Molotov cocktails and willful vandalism of public and private property costing tens of millions. There have been close to 10,000 arrests. Meanwhile there have been well documented cases of excessive force being used by the police, but no investigations and no one brought to book. The opposition has been slow and mealy mouthed in their condemnation of the former but strident in their condemnation of the latter.
The administration’s strategy, if such it was, seemed to be to wait out the protests in the expectation that the proverbial silent majority would turn out at the district council polls last November to support the pro-government candidates and condemn the violence. It didn’t happen, the majority was still more angry about the government’s stubbornness than the protesters’ mayhem.
Somewhere in the process, the idea of steady progress on the political reform front got waylaid, and the separate issues of national security and domestic order became hopelessly entangled.
Hong Kong has a long and dishonourable tradition of fake consultation on political reform, stretching back at least as far as 1987. The most recent example of course came in 2014 with an ultra-conservative package emerging with no scope for compromise. This failed to meet the community’s aspiration and led directly to Occupy. The seeds of distrust thus sown have flourished in the meantime.
National security is a priority for every country. Hong Kong was entrusted, under Article 23 of the Basic Law, with bringing forward the necessary legislation. For 23 years we failed to do so. Some delay was understandable after the fiasco of 2003, but once Trump became American president in 2017 and declared China a strategic competitor, our failure to act became inexcusable. It was only a matter of time before Beijing would plug the gap.
Meanwhile, some of the protesters and their supporters had begun lobbying Washington and London to intervene in Hong Kong affairs. This was never likely to be fruitful: we need good relations with Beijing, not other capitals. But some then began to lobby other countries to take action against Hong Kong and China, such as asking the US to withdraw our special trade status, or introduce sanctions against the economy or even named individuals. How was the folly of giving succour to the enemy in time of cold war ever going to produce desirable outcomes?
Which brings us to the present day. The extradition/rendition puzzle still hasn’t been solved and we will need to come back to it another day. The national security issue has been split into two halves. Hong Kong still has to fulfill its obligations under Article 23, but meanwhile Beijing has stepped in with national legislation to address what it regards as the most urgent aspects. At time of writing the final shape of the new law is not clear, but the outcome is unlikely to be pretty. The draft has not been published and there has been no general consultation, just a quiet chat with some friends of the central government, but promulgation and enforcement are said to be imminent.
What this all means for the Legco elections in September is anyone’s guess. Will the community be cowed by Beijing’s perceived resoluteness and support pro government candidates? Or will the opposition rally even more support for its cause so that even if the violence in the street declines, the chaos in Legco will intensify?
And what then? Our community needs to heal, it needs someone to begin the process of reconciliation. Already the expression “enemy of the people” has been heard. This is hardly helpful and could backfire. If the majority is shown not to trust or support the government, who then is the people’s enemy?
Is there a statesman in the house?