A young scholar's letter to Chief Executive Carrie Lam

August 30, 2019 12:15
Police clash with anti-government protesters in Tsuen Wan on Aug. 25. Photo: Reuters

Dear Mrs. Carrie Lam,

I am a young scholar at Oxford and an ordinary Hong Kong citizen.

Over the past 12 weeks, I’ve watched the city where I was born and raised descend into unimaginable levels of violence, chaos, and division.

I’ve seen opposition to a legislative proposal evolve into an explosion of pent-up frustrations and deeply rooted dissatisfaction with the way our city is governed.

I’ve witnessed the stark contrasts between the nominal principles of law and order that we cherish so deeply and the acrimonious betrayal of these principles by all parties involved in this ongoing conflict. Trust in institutions and interpersonal relationships has declined to a new low as a result of inflammatory rhetoric cast from both sides – bent on demonizing members of the other “side” as inhuman, inferior creatures.

Most fundamentally, in this city I love and we all love, life is falling apart – from the businesses and restaurants affected by the pervasive fears of protests and altercations between law enforcement and citizens; to the lives of ordinary citizens who must now contemplate what color of shirts they ought to avoid; to industries and businesses who fear speaking out lest they cross the “wrong side” of this political intrigue.

Friendships are destroyed, parents and children transformed into strangers, as one’s political stance becomes a growing shibboleth or prickly taboo. Protesters see violence as a necessary and acceptable tool, and their most vocal critics view retaliation against them an ostensibly justified responsive measure. As a result, confidence in the police forces has continued to dwindle and their morale weakened.

To “wait it out” is deeply irresponsible – it encourages further escalation from all parties as they view the authorities’ silence as tacit endorsement of their vigilante interpretation of what the law constitutes; it transforms casualties among civilians and property damages into gambling chips in a risky game whose results remain deeply inconclusive; it drags out the conflict into one that unnecessarily and unwisely assaults the very core relationship between Hong Kong and the Mainland.

Above all, it fails to take heed of the public psyche – it is not the case that mass attitudes are shifting away from the protesters; if anything, sympathy for the most radical of protesters has only increased in the face of the government's perceived callous inaction.

“Waiting it out” does not lead to the smothering of the movement; it further encourages the most radical and zealous elements at the expense of the welfare of the general public.

As moderates, we share your conviction in resolving violence and restoring order to Hong Kong. Many among us are worried that as the restrictions on protests tighten and hotter heads prevail, we would be witnessing weekends of increasingly greater chaos.

You have continually emphasized the need for dialogue and conversation, but I think the first step – prior to any attempt at forging compromises or brokering agreements under promises of pragmatism – is to listen: to listen to the voices of the public – even those who absolutely disagree with you; the voices of legislators – both those in the Establishment and Democratic camps, who have valuable insights on how Hong Kong could be governed; the voices of the disenfranchised youths who feel that political accountability remains lacking in today’s government, or those who struggle to even purchase a house despite years of strenuous work.

It is poignant to see our city filled with people “hearing without listening” and “talking without speaking” – in the words of Simon and Garfunkel.

Even if none of the five demands were feasible, you ought to undertake at least some radical alternative solutions that could genuinely assuage some of the concerns of the public.

Firstly, expand the demographics of your dialogue platform’s advisory committee and ensure that it is implemented fairly, with diversity and representativeness in mind. Deliberation is only effective if those designing or advising upon the articulation and construction of its rules are sufficiently representative. 

Bring in the voices of those with whom you staunchly disagree – let their criticisms turn a new page in your governance, as you break away from your echo chamber and truly engage with those who are disappointed and frustrated.

When implementing your platform, invite and listen to those who are traditionally deterred from participating in establishment political structures – and act upon their words. There would certainly be radicals whose visions and complaints would not be politically feasible – but this is no ground to rule out any and all of the sensible demands they raise.

Secondly, recognize that the underlying causes for this crisis are heterogeneous and not purely socioeconomic. It is tempting to slap a monetary label on the crisis and wish it away through handing out cash. Socioeconomic inequalities are – by all means – a contributing factor. Yet this is no excuse to overlook the communication gaps, structural loopholes in core governance structures, identity crisis confronting particular Hongkongers, and an increasing sense of inevitable fatalism as Hong Kong’s economy slips behind its rapidly rising counterparts in the same country. These, too, are issues that require solutions – both immediate ones that are nevertheless well-thought-out and executed, and long-term planning and vision that last for decades to come.

Thirdly, perhaps recall that Weber’s dual ethics of responsibility and conviction requires politicians to be guided by both the instrumentalist, calculating mentality of governing efficiently and an acute awareness of what is normatively the right thing to do.

Peace without justice amounts to very little. Even if you were able to restore stability to Hong Kong for now through staunch and drastic measures, such stability would be at best short-lived – for the fundamentals for a stable society remain its ability to uphold justice, and to be seen to care for justice. There would need to be some form of genuine investigation and serious introspection in relation to the crisis of this summer – both for forward-looking reasons of steering Hong Kong onto the right path, and for backward-looking prerogatives of delivering justice to those who have committed wrongs.

All this is not to say Carrie Lam must alone bear the burden of restoring our city. For starters, the Executive Council and her cabinet must play a key part, too, in listening to and engaging with skeptical and critical voices, and transforming their thoughts into implementable policies.

To those who have taken great pleasure in remaining apathetic and indifferent about politics – now is the time to perhaps consider how much you have taken from this city, and how you could, too, help. We are born political individuals – from the identities we adopt to our socioeconomic statuses; from our relationships and norms to our likes and dislikes. The political is encapsulating and total – and any escape from it is at best superficial, if not irresponsible.

To those who could broker greater peace amongst police and protesters – remember that your words and actions would not only be salvaging a generation of law enforcement agents and those who receive law enforcement, but also rescuing an institution that is a core pillar of Hong Kong’s success. There must be enquiries and reforms – with the purpose not of assigning individualised guilt and blame, but of identifying problematic structures and narratives that must be quelled.

To legislators, politicians, political figures and the powerful doyens in the city – perhaps remember that there is more that unites and unifies us than divides us. Divisions are constructs, but our shared bonds as human beings are not. Violence and hatred would only beget further escalation. It falls upon compassionate minds on both sides of the aisle to bring an end to the violence that has disrupted our society. Most fundamentally, it falls upon negotiations – wherever and whenever – who could resolve the deadlock and security dilemma in which we are currently trapped.

Hong Kong is a part of China – there should be no question over or about that. Any functional arrangement in Hong Kong should be founded upon a confluence of Hongkongers’ interests and mainland China’s interests. Hong Kong is a special administrative region of over 7 million individuals; a proud, vibrant, dynamic people where East meets West – the best of both worlds.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.”

Hope may be a dangerous thing for us to have – but to forget hope is to forget what makes us humans after all.

Thank you.

– Contact us at [email protected]