Our city is dying and there's little we can do

October 03, 2019 12:12
With Hong Kong's civil unrest showing no signs of ending anytime soon, the city faces some fundamental questions over its future. Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong, in the eyes of many folks from around the world, is many things: a major global financial hub; a tourist heaven; a cultural melting pot where East and West strike the perfect balance, and the birthplace of some of the most creative, versatile, and assiduous people on Earth.

To me, however, it’s Home. I was born and raised in Hong Kong, and take delight in the everyday charms of life in the city. Walking on the overflowing streets of Causeway Bay on a busy weekend, strolling along the Victoria Harbour in Tsim Sha Tsui, or squatting on a stool in Temple Street for a spicy crab pot – these may seem trivial pleasures, and hard to relate to if you are from elsewhere, but not so for someone like me. The inexplicable uniqueness of the city -- the sights and sounds, and the cacophonous cauldron of voices -- means you have to really live here to experience it.

But everything seems to have changed this summer. Perhaps, you could say that some deep-rooted problems that had always been simmering under the surface had come to a boil. Resentment toward the government for perceived lack of accountability and competence, the anxieties of the youth about upward mobility amid widening socioeconomic inequality, ambivalent feelings toward the mother country -- Mainland China --and other underlying frustrations... these were all issues that, in retrospect, had the writings on the wall laid out in crimson paint.

The protests began – first in opposition to an extradition bill, then over perceived government ineptitude and botched handling of the affair, and later evolving into calls for launch of systemic political reforms and universal suffrage. Peaceful protests turned to violent altercations and rancorous confrontations, then to full-blown civil warfare.

With some radical groups deeming violent means as the only possible solution, many youth broke the law and shattered the underlying fabric of trust that had thinly held the dissenting detractors together in society. On the other side, the police – propelled by norms as well as antagonism toward the protesters – went down a path of no return as they sought to quell the unrest.

The cycle of violence culminated in a large-scale eruption of violence on October 1, a day when we were supposed to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Yet celebration was on few people’s minds – be it from the pro-establishment or pan-democrat camps, peaceful protesters or violent demonstrators, pro-China or anti-China citizens.

That is because their minds were occupied largely by the raging violence that engulfed the city, transforming each and every one of its districts into battlefields. Hongkongers were turned against Hongkongers, as law and order dissipated amid exchanges of projectiles, blows, petrol bombs and water cannon. Fire and ice, blood and sweat – the scenes extended from Wong Tai Sin to Yuen Long to Admiralty, and beyond.

How the day’s events would be recollected is a sign of, and also an indictment of the root causes of, how close we are to the point of no return. Individuals engage with this conflict through fundamentally distinct and non-fungible lenses. Many of the radical protesters view this as a fight against the encroachment of their freedoms and the inept Hong Kong government. Many in the establishment view these activities as riots aimed at overthrowing the established order – perhaps due to external funding, or teenage angst, or venomous disregard for the law.

The attitudes of Mainland Chinese citizens, towards which some amongst the protesters have increasingly directed their anger and vitriol, have become increasingly and chillingly hardline. Attitudinal polarization does not solely shape how one judges objective circumstances – it also affects whom one imagines to be friends or enemies; whether one will grant the benefit of doubt to fragmented video clips or hearsay portraying the “enemy” in the worst light, and what one takes to be morally acceptable.

To the protesters, any and all violence is seemingly justified because of the combination of the government’s lack of response to the public's demands, and repeated incidents where the police have transgressed boundaries and protocol in their treatment of protesters.

For the police, any violence from their end can be rationalized as both exercising self-defense and discharging their duties. For the administration, violence from the protesters is always impermissible, and all usage of force by the disciplinary forces – given the latter’s importance – must be accepted and endorsed. For many passive civilians trying to make sense of the chaos in the city, they are of the blurred view that both parties are at fault, but the exact determination of guilt, culpability, and responsibility is too laborious a task to accomplish by any ordinary individual.

Such polarized attitudes stem from fundamental disagreements over the terms and parameters at stake in Hong Kong. From skin-deep clashes over the extradition bill’s contents and the extent to which the Chinese judiciary system can be entrusted, to disagreements over the track record and normative legitimacy of both the Hong Kong and Beijing administrations, to fundamental disagreements over identities – these are conflicts with varying degrees of resolvability, only dwindling as the list goes on.

You can debate and convert others’ opinions on issues of facts – such as whether the bill is indeed perilous, or whether protocol has been violated; yet you can seldom succeed in converting others on emotive and identitarian issues – “Are you Chinese?”, “Are you from Hong Kong?”, “Is there a way to be both?”

It is through these frames that we come to understand the world and events around us – that seemingly innocuous and unrelated events could be strung together under one coherent umbrella framework. Protesters’ concerns about the events of 8/31, 7/21, and 6/12 bolster the movement’s momentum in its pitch against the Hong Kong government and police. Similarly, the backdrop of the US-China trade war and the alleged involvement of the US have played on the nerves of many pro-establishment and pro-Beijing individuals, prompting them to see the protest movement as the outcome of deliberate, malevolent foreign infiltration.

Why bother with communication? Protesters view the establishment as ill-intentioned, disingenuous, and unresponsive to their demands. The establishment sees the protesters as individuals with unquenchable demands, avariciously searching for concessions and further ostensible reasons to justify their destruction. Even where there is communication, the process is too slow, too little. By the time the bureaucratic checks and assessments have all been completed, another wave of crisis hits – and the clock resets to zero.

Any reasonable resolution of this crisis requires the disentanglement of questions of governmental accountability and police accountability from two fundamentally unchangeable empirical realities – that Hong Kong is a part of China, and that there is a significant group of individuals in Hong Kong who find integration with China difficult, if not fundamentally unthinkable. Selective media reporting, political and social communities that function as echo chambers, networks of entrenched beliefs and privileges are contributory factors that all fan the fire.

The prognosis is grim. Our city is dying, and there is – frankly – little that we can do. We could wish for the violent protesters to cease violence, but that would also mean a failure to understand why they remain on the streets. As much as we may personally disagree, they see the protests as a fight, as a mutually annihilative gesture whose catatonic consequences they are willing to bear. We could wish for more concessions from the Central and Hong Kong administration, but doing so would be based on a fundamental misreading of how politics works – particularly in the eyes of Beijing, where giving and taking must be in equal amounts.

What of moderates, then? Indeed – the embattled moderates, the quiet moderates, the vilified and hated and public-spirited moderates who are chastised for embracing the ideal of dialogue?

Perhaps in a parallel universe, at some parallel point in time, they could have a role to play. Perhaps we could dream together of a collective future where reasoned discussion that ends up with substantive agreements and policy changes – as opposed to hollow gestures – can take us out of the current mess. Yet until that dream begins, moderates have little to no role to play in the ongoing descent into Armageddon.

You may see this piece as a defeatist, implicit perpetuation of the status quo – but I would suggest that it is not. The issues, problems, and root causes have been laid bare for all to see, and there are only so many actors who can act to resolve the crisis, one spurred by a leaderless movement against a government that seems increasingly leaderless. The future of Hong Kong is grim, though as with all tragedies waiting to finish, not all hope is lost.

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HKEJ contributor