China needs to take risks and accept the “political middle,” says Christine Loh, a former Legislative Councillor
This is a by-invitation commentary in a series on “Hong Kong’s Future,” part of The Economist’s Open Future initiative, which aims to foster a global conversation across the ideological spectrum on vital issues.
Hong Kong’s problems arise from stasis. A future as a liberal and prosperous society is possible if it takes full advantage of the “one country, two systems” principle as a part of China. Hong Kong can achieve much-needed reforms to its politics and administration. But that will take work by all sides to craft a compelling new narrative to win back public trust. The central government in Beijing, the authorities in Hong Kong and the political and business establishment—which includes leaders of the pro-democracy camp—all have to learn lessons from the current crisis.
The weeks of protests should be a signal to officials in Beijing that it has not been nearly inclusive enough in cultivating Hong Kong’s “political middle”. They are a rebuke, too, to those selected by the Chinese authorities to represent Hong Kong on such national and regional political bodies as the National People’s Congress. They have failed to inspire the people of Hong Kong to take an interest in the astonishing development underway in mainland China.
The opposition “pan-democrats”—a loose grouping of politicians who call for full political representation—have not shown that they have an alternative vision for Hong Kong, involving detailed policies that solve real problems. That is why they have not managed to upstage the lacklustre “pro-establishment” camp that officials in Beijing support.
Successive post-1997 administrations must also accept blame. They have not crafted strategies for the single largest task they faced after the end of British rule: to deal with being a part of China. They have not had the wherewithal to reform an outdated colonial bureaucracy in desperate need of stronger policy-making, public engagement and communication skills in today’s world.
Stasis results from being stuck in the past. Protesters are wrecking what they see as a dysfunctional system. But they are underestimating the risks involved and the number of people affected, and succumbing to a belief that taking down the system might “save” Hong Kong. Calling for foreign governments to “liberate” Hong Kong won’t help. Deep introspection is needed amid the violence and daily protests.
As for the authorities in Beijing, their longing for “safety” makes them unwilling to take risks to win over the “political middle”. Its process for reaching out to and managing the public and non-Communist groups and forces—referred to as the “united front”—is carried out by relatively low-level officials, who lack the skills to cultivate Hong Kongers with global-liberal mindsets, whether that means professionals or the young.
Those unhappy with the status quo do not see inspiring leaders on any side. Pillars of the pro-establishment camp include tycoons, old-time leftists and rural clan leaders from villages and territories outside the city centre. They and other interest groups are embedded in Hong Kong’s political system, and they use their privileged positions to protect their interests. The Hong Kong public doesn’t trust them.
Peaceful marchers support the protesters because they want a fair society and do not see a better alternative around which they can gravitate. The pan-democrats, for their part, are also failing to inspire much hope. Protesters see them as lacking in inspiration and as part of the political establishment.
Hardest of all is the role of the chief executive. The four leaders since the handover in 1997 had to choose ministers from among the ranks of administrators, or recruited figures from outside the civil service who in many cases had no political experience. The result has been mostly timid, slow-paced policies that have not kept up with a fast-developing China and an increasingly competitive world.
The youth of Hong Kong and their parents are pessimistic. Their home territory seems incapable of taking decisions to make them more competitive. Yet Hong Kong people clearly have what it takes to compete—just look at the creativity and quick-mindedness of the young protesters. Their energies must be directed away from destruction.
Can the authorities in Beijing be more inclusive and trusting of the “political middle”? If the answer is yes, then Hong Kong could draw on a much wider group of political leaders and representatives, not the motley crew currently trotted out.
Can the top ranks of the civil service modernise the bureaucracy, so that everything it does drives Hong Kong towards a better future? Mainland China should support such a move; and it will be popular with Hong Kong people.
Can the political establishment, including the pan-democrats, acknowledge they are part of the problem? If yes, they can be a part of the solution. In truth, they desperately need to get out of the rut they are in and cultivate new voices of hope and leadership.
Can protesters pause? They can declare victory. They have caused a massive political earthquake, which is no small feat. As for the independent inquiry, led by judges, which people are calling for: more thought is needed about what its focus should be. No public inquiry can deal with all of the ills that have driven weeks of protests.
Another approach is required to break the current impasse. Institutional change is needed and can only arise from dialogue, deliberation and debate. The subject of that dialogue must be nothing less than establishing a new Hong Kong under the principle “one country, two systems”.
At this most trying of times, Hong Kong society is beginning to stir. Campaigns to create citizen discussion-groups are springing up, since the political-administrative structure is under siege. Among those attracted to such efforts are the many Hong Kongers who still sympathise with the root cause of protests that started with an unpopular extradition bill, but who are also deeply disturbed to witness frequent disruptions and escalating attacks on the daily functions of the city.
People in the political middle are calling on friends and organisations to come together—forming a broad alliance across the political divide to urge protesters to stand down, leave their weapons at the door and start a dialogue of reconciliation.
Hong Kong needs to design and build new, politically-neutral forums for dialogue, where people can voice their feelings and ideas for a better society.
An alliance drawn from the political middle has a chance to bring those forums to life, quickly. Let’s see if this will work. The government must listen; and authorities on the mainland should also take note.
There are examples from around the world that dealt with deep-seated conflicts, such as in South Africa post-apartheid and Northern Ireland after years of terrorism. Singapore went through a massive dialogue exercise in 2012 for citizens to talk about their desired future.
Hong Kong, too, can design a process to envision how to operate a successful, liberal society with a high degree of autonomy within China’s polity. Hong Kong combines an amazing history with southern Chinese culture, blended together with a global mindset. It enjoys massive advantages over any other mainland city, which it must protect; not destroy. This is the risk protesters need to consider.
Hong Kong people need to talk to each other. Nothing else will heal division. Their future is in their own hands.
Christine Loh is a former Hong Kong Legislative Councillor and served as Under Secretary for the Environment from 2012 to 2017.
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