In the words of an old Scottish proverb “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride”. 2020 has been such a dreadful year for so many people it is tempting to think only an infinite number of wishes could put everything right for Hong Kong in 2021. But to stay focused for the purposes of this column I am going to limit myself to three.
I will not waste one of them on a cure for COVID-19 because there is no need. There are so many vaccines now at an advance stage of trial. Whether those that tinkered with mRNA or one of the more conventional “dead virus” types turns out to be the better long-term solution will become clearer over the next year. In any event the world’s scientists seem to be well on the way to giving us a healthy mixture of solutions.
Nor will I waste time on hoping for an early and significant economic recovery. Although in business terms we punch well above our weight, Hong Kong represents only a tiny share of global GDP. What happens to us depends to a very large extent on what happens elsewhere: whether the USA returns to a reasoned set of policies after the four-year binge on voodoo economics; and whether our own country can turn its rebound into a sustained era of growth. In the long term, there are grounds for optimism on both counts but I fear the timescale will be disappointing.
My first wish for Hong Kong in the New Year is that our many “friends” around the world will stop “helping” us. We do not need US senators flying in, dressing themselves in black, and showing support for rioters. A legitimate and mostly orderly protest movement was morphing into an orgy of violence and vandalism. Lending support was not helpful. Similarly, a Secretary of State calling for regime change in Beijing while at the same time loudly shouting his support for democratic reform in Hong Kong only increased distrust and virtually guaranteed zero progress for a long time.
Introducing sanctions against individual Hong Kong officials has had a devastating and contrary effect. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has been very unpopular locally because of her handling of the extradition saga. Nor was she highly regarded by officials in the Central People’s Government who at one point seemed to be on the verge of ushering her out of the door. But by singling her out for harsh treatment, even critics have a modicum of sympathy and Beijing could not abandon her without losing face. If the top position is going to be automatically encumbered with sanctions, who would want it? The perverse effect could be she might be able to cling on for a second term for want of alternative.
My second wish is for our young, idealistic, reform proponents to become less naïve. I agree with much of their agenda – meaningful political reform, an accountable police force, a more equitable society – but to start from the position that Hong Kong was not part of China, or at least had the option of independence in future, doomed their other ideas to failure despite their merits. They have craved support from the United States, only to be betrayed at the last minute by senator Ted Cruz blocking legislation that would have made immigration easier. They have welcomed support from the UK with its promises of “a path to citizenship” without realising that their parents and grandparents already enjoyed full right of abode there until it was stripped from them by purposeful changes to British Nationality law in the 1980s.
And what are we to make of the recent call by Sixtus Baggio Leung for the USA to hit China by destroying the HK dollar peg to the US currency. Wound China by killing Hong Kong? How will destroying the jobs and livelihoods of ordinary Hongkongers advance the cause of democracy?
My third wish is for all parties to launch a serious effort at reconciliation. The schisms in our social fabric are deep and enduring. The widescale street protests may have ended for the time being, curbed by a combination of the social distancing measures introduced to fight the pandemic and reinforced by the national security law. But the underlying causes of the unrest have not been addressed. The latest call for a commission to be established for the purpose came from retiring Baptist University president Roland Chin Tai-hong. Many of his students were arrested during the protests last year and the campus occupied for a time. In a recent interview with this newspaper, Chin said he had been saddened by the events. Nearly one year later there were still no conversations to bridge the rifts in society.
Several other parties have recognized the need for such a commission and indeed foreigners with experience of Truth and Reconciliation exercises in other places have spoken here of how things were handled in post-Apartheid South Africa and in Northern Ireland after the troubles.
Lam herself has spoken of the need for such an effort as long ago as September last year, when she admitted restoration of harmony would be a “long road”. It certainly will be, and she would be the worst person to lead the way. Someone who said only recently that she had done nothing wrong – not a widely held view – could hardly be tasked to spearhead the search for truth.
A judge would in normal circumstances be a good choice, but may take us too close to a Commission of Inquiry for the comfort of some. How about a panel of three led by a senior member of the bar – Wong Yan-lung anyone? A retired vice chancellor bearing in mind the number of students involved in the protects – does the name of Joseph Sung Jao-yiu ring any bells? And a neutral politician? Finally a post retirement job for Donald Tsang Yam-kuen!