26 October 2016
Given the huge divide between the pan-democratic camp and Beijing, the newly established Path of Democracy (left) and The Third Side (right) are unlikely to see strong support from voters. Photo: HKEJ
Given the huge divide between the pan-democratic camp and Beijing, the newly established Path of Democracy (left) and The Third Side (right) are unlikely to see strong support from voters. Photo: HKEJ

The middle way leads to nowhere

There is something rather appealing in the idea that Hong Kong’s political stalemate can be overcome by finding a middle way through the two deeply polarized pro and anti-government camps.

Unfortunately, this middle way concept is naïve at best and highly questionable in many other ways.

However, this mythical middle way is much talked about these days.

Ronny Tong Ka-wah, the former Civic Party legislator, went so far as to resign his seat in pursuit of this illusive compromise.

He has even set up a think tank called Path of Democracy (民主思路) to try and identify ways in which a middle way can be brought to life.

Meanwhile, and rather more problematic, is this new political party called The Third Side (新思維), founded by two former Democratic Party members, Tik Chi-yuen and Nelson Wong Sing-chi.

Much of what you need to know about this party was on display at its official launch.

This inauguration dinner raised an impressive HK$2 million (US$256,795) and was attended by all the most senior government officials, led by Leung Chun-ying.

The Communist Wen Wei Po newspaper gave extensive coverage to this event.

If Tik and Wong seriously believe that this display of support by CY and his gang will be of any benefit to a party claiming to advocate a middle way, they must have drunk more at this banquet than was good for them.

A likely explanation of what’s going here is the application of classic united front tactics so loved by communist parties the world over.

The united front is a construct that brings all manner of allegedly independent bodies and individuals into a tactical alliance with the party.

On the one hand, this acknowledges that there is something rather toxic about the party itself and so it provides a way for fellow travellers to draw close in a manner that gives them plausible denial about being party members.

On the other hand, it is part of a process of trying to isolate the opposition to the party by building up a large front of organizations that convey the impression of independence but on important issues endorse the party’s actions to create an illusion of widespread support.

European communist parties successfully used this tactic and so did the Chinese Communist Party before the revolution.

After the revolution, the rusty hulks of the united front were kept in being but it was not considered worthwhile to maintain the illusion of independence.

The revival of this tactic with the launch of the Third Way badly underestimates the intelligence of Hong Kong people but then again the people in charge of Hong Kong’s pro-government camp are not the brightest light bulbs in the chandelier.

Even if we put to one side this phony attempt at creating an illusion of compromise, we are still left with a genuine feeling that somewhere out there lies the possibility of new forces forging a middle way.

However, history delivers a quite different version of how compromise is ultimately achieved.

What tends to happen is that successful compromise comes from a deal, based on mutual benefit, between the more powerful polarized parties to any given conflict.

The peace agreement brokered by Tony Blair’s Labour government in Northern Ireland is an excellent example of this as it brought together the largely Catholic Irish Republican Army and the powerful Protestant parties, including their armed wings.

Before this happened, they had literally been throwing bombs at each other.

The violence did no more than sustain a prolonged stalemate; to break that stalemate, the main status quo force, the UK government, promoted a formula to give both sides a share of power and a reason to cease hostilities.

The third force in Irish politics, the Social Democratic Party, which was non-sectarian, was largely irrelevant in this process.

Closer to home, we have the current example of efforts by Aung San Suu Kyi’s victorious National League for Democracy taking a decisive step to bring Myanmar’s armed ethnic groups into peace talks with the carrot of some kind of power sharing in the areas dominated by minority peoples.

This is a long-running conflict and these efforts may well fail but there a ceasefire is now in place and both sides agree that there is something to talk about.

No middle way exists in this process; it purely depends on the two highly polarized parties sorting something out.

Fortunately, in Hong Kong, no one is throwing bombs and violence is not the backdrop to the impasse that exists here.

However, in some ways, the situation appears to be more hopeless because the government and its masters in Beijing are seeking a solution that involves offering precisely nothing to its opponents.

In the face of this intransigence, the opposition sticks to maximalist demands for reform, as they know that compromise will only lead to problems among their supporters.

If you doubt this, look at what happened to the Democratic Party after it struck a modest compromise over electoral reform that turned out to change nothing.

The initiative has to be taken by the party with the power to change the status quo: in Hong Kong that party still believes that the only way forward is the crushing defeat of the opposition.

So-called third-way organizations have little relevance, even though well intentioned people sincerely believe that a special form of compromise is lurking somewhere out there.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author

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