A Hongkonger's letter to Carrie Lam

October 02, 2019 08:02
Chief Executive Carrie Lam holds the first session of her community dialogue on Sept. 26. The author says dialogue is a good first step, but it must come with real changes. Photo: Reuters

Dear Mrs. Carrie Lam,

The past three and a half months have seen Hong Kong descend into some of the worst chaos and instability it has witnessed in its political history. The extradition bill that you sought to introduce – plausibly with good intentions – has led to a downward spiral driven by long-accumulated resentment and frustrations at governance in our city.

The police force – once touted as the finest in Asia – is now marred by allegations of abuse, its name overshadowed by paranoia and skepticism. You are right that the maintenance of this city’s law and order must nominally be carried out through our force. Yet it is difficult to square this statement with the many videos online that display the blatant contrary. Even if these fragmented clips are but one distorted side of the picture, there is clearly much more that must be said to assuage the concerned public.

The streets of Hong Kong – once filled with the hustle and bustle of work and commerce – have now become battlefields, where protesters clash regularly with the police; where values and generations collide; where anger threatens to tear down the fabric of tolerance that held our city together.

The vibrancy of our businesses, the prolific and lucrative industries propelling our city’s economy, our financial stocks – which once made our city great – have all been dragged into an expanding quagmire, as a result of the turbulence that permeates our everyday lives: from the relative comforts of the privileged in Mid-Levels, to the teargas-filled streets in Mong Kok, to the homeless and the poor navigating their already-difficult lives in Sham Shui Po. No one is exempt, as MTR stations are turned into sites of guerrilla warfare and ambushes; transportation hubs and malls, into arenas of ideological clashes and heated confrontations.

Our rule of law – unanimously embraced by all parties as the cornerstone of our judicious political model and efficacious governance – was confronted by long-unseen challenges. It is hard to "unhear" the chilling, dehumanizing words – “cockroaches” – or to "unsee" visceral images of bloodied figures emerging from brawls, arson, and weekend protests. It is impossible to lead an ordinary life, to “get on by” in a city usurped by vigilantism and political polarization.

As a part of the 7.5 million people of this city, never have I found my home city so unfamiliar, so discomforting and jarring in its vitriol.

This is not the Hong Kong I used to know.

This is not the Hong Kong we know.

This is not the Hong Kong that we, as Hong Kongers, deserve.

I commend you for attempting to extend an olive branch through a series of actions – from withdrawing the extradition bill at the beginning of September to initiating some sort of dialogue with the people, through acknowledging the inadequacies of your governance and the worries of many Hongkongers.

I also appreciate that you are in a somewhat difficult and tough spot, caught between structures and considerations whose balancing is your primary responsibility, and fending off international pressures that are largely driven by ulterior political motives.

Yet I hope you are not under any illusion that these current measures are enough.

Withdrawal, you claim, is an olive branch. That may well be true for some – but plausibly a minority among many more who remain skeptical. The protests are unlikely to go away with the wave of some magic wand.

I’m no protester, but even I know that this is true from the momentum of the protest movement that remains strong even after more than a hundred days have passed. 

I also believe this is true because 80 percent of those who spoke out during your first dialogue session with the public were voices of dissent and opposition.

And the longer these dissenting voices are made to wait, the greater will be their disillusionment.

Socioeconomic reforms alone are insufficient because at the core of many dissatisfied, ordinary Hong Kong citizens is a thirst for justice – in particular, justice and accountability over the events of this summer. If you saw a limb off a man, you cannot simply give him 100 packs of bandage and expect him to be satisfied. If a patient is down with Ebola, giving her the treatment for H1N1 – however advanced the cure may be – could not possibly save the patient from certain death. Housing and socioeconomic inequalities are one thing, the lack of accountability and transparency is another.

Dialogue is also inadequate if it comes with no concrete action or results. I applaud your courage in facing the crowd on Thursday, but who would applaud the audience for voicing the concerns of many ordinary Hongkongers struggling to get by, or for turning up despite the long-standing and deeply rooted mistrust they harbor towards the government? How could we talk about trust if trust does not lead to reflection, reflection to change and action?

What is to be done, going forward?

First, a Commission of Inquiry (COI) is a must. From the point of view of many peaceful protesters, there simply are too many unanswered questions that remain hanging after more than three months of waiting – from San Uk Ling to the events of August 31, from what exactly happened on July 21 to structural loopholes in the existing protocol that led frontline officers to unintentionally commit egregious mistakes. For many police officers on the frontline, an investigation is the best means of clearing their names while identifying colleagues who have erred. For the public, the commission is the most incisive and efficient method of clarifying the root causes and circumstances surrounding the events this summer.

If the establishment is unhappy with the purported targeting of the police – investigate everyone. If you are worried about duplicating the functions of the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), set up and define your terms of references such that there is no overlap between the remit of IPCC and this commission. Justice cannot be an abstract concept – it must be seen to be done. Even if it is still your administration that is establishing it, setting up a COI signals your willingness to listen, and your recognition of the greatest common denominator among Hong Kong citizens.

Second, this summer has revealed systemic flaws in our city’s political governance. Absorb the many young political talents out there who wish to contribute to our city; build institutions to include, not to exclude or extract; ensure that your commissions’ intake of youth reflects the fullest range of political orientations.

If universal suffrage is infeasible, at least introduce mechanisms and institutions that can convince the Hong Kong public that quality governance is tenable without such substantial political changes. If you are serious about the dialogue platform, let it be the beginning – and not the end – of the many conversations we must have over Hong Kong’s political trajectory.

I have lived in this city for many years, and witnessed its transition from a British colony to a part of China. I am proud of being a Hong Kong Chinese – yet this pride comes from years of working with colleagues and friends in the mainland. My heart was broken when I saw secessionism-inflamed rhetoric casting all mainlanders in a negative light. Yet I am also well aware that the best and only way of cultivating a sense of belonging is through mutual understanding, empathy, and dialogue – not through superficial words and unsuccessful hard-selling.

This takes me to my third point. Your New York Times article declares, “Hong Kong does have a future.” Its future, you argue, lies in the continued upholding of the “one country, two systems”. Yet such upholding – as we all know – is by no means easy. The deeply rooted antagonism of Hongkongers towards your administration casts an unmistakable shadow over the future of our relationship with the mainland.

The preservation of this unprecedented political arrangement requires dexterity and integrity – dexterity, in finding the overlapping room between Hong Kong’s and the mainland’s interests; integrity, in articulating – loudly and clearly – Hongkongers’ interests to Beijing. The monolithic demonization of Beijing is unhelpful and disingenuous, but it is up to you, as our city’s leader, to speak for all of us – not just the big businesses, landowners, and powerful expatriates.

In practice, this requires a serious examination of the roots of Hongkongers’ doubts and uneasiness about our city’s future. It is not good enough to dismiss them simply as the result of ignorance and stupidity; nor is it acceptable to disregard them as an inevitable blip on the track – when the blip threatens to derail the entire track. Listening is but the first step, responding is the next.

Besides, Mrs. Lam, there are many who must take action promptly and swiftly. Pro-establishment legislators should realize that cosmetic solutions fix no fundamental problems. Pan-democrats should seek to channel the movement’s demands in a pragmatic and solution-driven manner, as opposed to sitting idly. Those with power and privilege should partake in the dialogue process themselves – you may find yourselves alerted to thoughts you have never considered, by our city’s collective wisdom.

Dialogue is a good first step, but it must come with real, genuine changes. We all love Hong Kong. We all believe that Hong Kong deserves a better future.

In The Audacity of Hope, former US President Barack Obama writes, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

We are the change that we seek. Let’s work together, not against each other, to make it happen.

The author of this article is an HKEJ contributor.

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