23 October 2016
People walk past police officers standing guard on a street after violent clashes in Mong Kok earlier this month. Photo: Bloomberg
People walk past police officers standing guard on a street after violent clashes in Mong Kok earlier this month. Photo: Bloomberg

When Beijing says ‘I’m all ears’

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah said in his budget speech that “tension and turbulence are mounting in Hong Kong. Many of us feel suffocated and helpless with the tiresome confrontations day in and day out… What we are facing today is the result of a raft of intricately-related factors.”

In a speech that contained more than just numbers and statistics, these words struck a chord among all people in the city.

The finance chief’s assessment is in contrast to the stance of Leung Chun-ying and his underlings, who blame a small bunch of “mobs” for all the woes. Now we know that, just like the society at large, there also exists a chasm within Hong Kong’s top leadership.

Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang Yok-sing revealed this week that, after the highly charged “fishball revolution” in Mong Kok, Beijing has sent its own people to the special administrative region to talk to Hongkongers and gather information in a bid to gauge the situation.

Now, what should the special envoys from Beijing be told?

For starters, they should be informed that malevolent figures that came into power following Leung’s election victory in 2012 are largely to blame for the city’s nascent mini-Cultural Revolution and all the repercussions, from extreme leftism to rampant polemics in the local media, intelligentsia and even within government think-tanks.

The hardliners, who favor an even more confrontational approach than the city’s indigenous communists, think Hongkongers’ hearts and minds have not reconciled to Beijing’s rule. But more than three years into Leung’s term, have they achieved anything?

Like John Tsang said in his budget speech, people are “perplexed and shocked that our city could have turned overnight into such a strange and alien place that we hardly recognized”. Many, not just members of the democratic bloc, share these feelings as Leung has backed us into a corner.

Seventy percent of young respondents preferred Leung in a 2012 survey prior to the election. No one could have imaged that within three years many youth today are gnashing their teeth and want to kick him out from office.

But I never put faith in the people from Beijing. As it once turned out, the central government’s “I’m all ears” posture is nothing but a trick.

After 700,000 people showed up in a massive 2003 rally, Beijing sent a liberal scholar to Hong Kong to seek views on policy amendments. Renowned journalist Ching Cheong volunteered as a moderator and I was among the few that were approached for suggestions.

But not long after my three-hour discussion with the Beijing cadre, I was suddenly stripped of my job at the government’s Central Policy Unit, and Cheong was detained on the mainland and put behind bars on some fabricated charges of leaking state secrets.

One wonders if Beijing really wanted opinions or if the talks were just a ploy to trap those it disliked.

Rather than genuine reflection on its many wrongs, Beijing has turned its liaison office in Hong Kong into the city’s de facto government.

Some say Beijing is aware of the underlying cause of the chaos and wants a new chief executive who is more able to achieve reconciliation. They suggest that Leung may not be given a second term.

If that is the case, half of Hong Kong, for sure, will go into raptures.

But I don’t think that we should expect any big change. Remember Mao Zedong’s tactics about alternating tension with relaxation, kindness with cruelty?

Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen’s governance were the embodiment of Beijing’s soft approach during the initial years after the handover. Now what Leung has been mandated to do are Beijing’s core aim of taming the city.

The rough way that Leung has adopted to get the job done has galvanized the people and thus Beijing feels it’s time to shift its policies to placate, as long as Hong Kong toes the line.

Beijing remained patient during Tung and Tsang’s era, a mostly honeymoon period back then, but it tightened its stance and handpicked Leung in 2012.

It may again keep its policies loose after Leung accomplishes all his political tasks. A game will be played out until before the decade leading to the expiry of “one country, two systems” in 2047, when both sides have to set a new deal to serve Beijing’s ultimate goal of genuine reunification.

If fresh clashes break out before the next chief executive election, Beijing may have to rely on Leung to quell the disturbance. In such case, the odds of him getting a second term can be quite high.

Another five years under Leung will mean a turn for the worse, but it can also fuel more nativist sentiments in the city.

If Beijing opts for a less hawkish figure who will implement its decrees in a more covert fashion, we may lose the mettle and stamina that have shaped today’s social movements. 

As for the Legco New Territories East by-election to be held this weekend, democrats have been having a hard time in picking whom to back: Edward Leung Tin-kei from Hong Kong Indigenous or Civic Party’s Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu.

Those who take the view that violence cannot be condoned, whatever the circumstances, will surely vote for Alvin, who is a barrister-at-law and a mainstream democrat.

But if one feels that a stronger strategy, as seen in the Mong Kok unrest, is a better way, then Edward will be seen as the right person.

I met Edward once, and my impression was that he is eloquent with a clear mind, way better than many incumbent legislators. And he has shown his guts on Mong Kok streets that night.

Whatever the result of the election, old-line democrats and the new camp of nativism should never aim fire at each other.

Meanwhile, a word of advice to Beijing: The best way to counter violence is never violence itself, but to open the door of the legislature to “rioters” and their groups.

As even separatism can be resolved through democracy, as we saw in the peaceful solution to the Northern Ireland conflict, Beijing should realize that when people have other channels, like a Legco seat, to make their voice heard, the groups espousing violence will ultimately abandon that path.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 25.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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