Why we need to set up a reform committee

January 15, 2020 13:32
Anti-government protesters stage a march in Sheung Shui on Jan. 5.  Insisting on the “five demands, not one less” would only exacerbate the current political deadlock, says the author. Photo: Reuters

These days, whenever I and my friends get together, the conversation almost always gravitates toward one topic: When will Hong Kong return to normal? How can we restore social order? Are riots and vandalism now the new norm?

To seek answers to these questions, one must first “diagnose” Hong Kong and identify the “illnesses” of our city in order to decide what kind of treatment we should apply.

But first, in order to defuse the crisis, we must first deal with the “five demands” put forward by protesters.

First proposed back in June last year, the five demands are: withdraw the extradition bill; stop categorizing the protests as riots; drop criminal charges against arrested protesters; hold the police accountable for abuse of power; and implement universal suffrage in chief executive and Legislative Council elections.

The key question is, will the government grant all these demands?

My answer: Quite unlikely. From the government's perspective, full compliance with the protesters’ demands will not necessarily guarantee the restoration of social order, given that the protest movement is pretty much leaderless.

Moreover, it is said that if the administration succumbs to pressure and agrees to all the five demands, it could risk whetting the protesters’ appetite for more concessions.

Besides, such demands as pardoning arrested protesters, holding the police accountable for its brutality and delivering universal suffrage are not only untimely at this stage but also not up to the SAR government to decide on its own.

As such, all the government could do is withdraw the extradition bill, which it has already done.

In other words, in my view, insisting on the “five demands, not one less” would only exacerbate the current political deadlock.

As a matter of fact, the protest movement has reflected a number of deep-rooted social conflicts in Hong Kong society: the widespread Commie-phobia among the public, the deepening wealth inequality, and the housing shortage.

First, the fear of the Communist Party of China (CPC) among the local public is nothing new.

If we look at the composition of our population, we will find that most of those who comprise our older generation are immigrants who fled the mainland due to war, political persecution, the Cultural Revolution or some other political struggle.

It is only natural, therefore, for them – as well as their sons and daughters – to have a deep-seated fear and distrust of the Communist Party.

Another long-standing issue that has been plaguing Hong Kong society for years is the deepening disparity between the rich and the poor.

Undoubtedly, Hong Kong isn’t alone in having to deal with the widening wealth gap: it is a common issue in capitalist economies around the world.

Nevertheless, unlike many western countries, which have adopted the welfare state model by imposing high tax rates in order to narrow the wealth gap, Hong Kong cannot afford to have a high tax regime.

Since our economy pretty much relies on domestic and foreign investments to fuel its growth, it is necessary for us to maintain low tax rates in order to attract investors.

The third problem, the housing shortage, is self-explanatory: poor and cramped living conditions will not only undermine family relations and the quality of married life, but will also give rise to social grievances.

Unless we are able to resolve these three fundamental issues, it would be difficult for us to break the current political stalemate.

As for the proposal of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to form an independent review committee (IRC) to look into the causes of social unrest and suggest remedies, it appears that members of the non-pro-establishment camp aren’t happy with it as they insist investigation and review are two different things.

Since neither side is likely to relent, I believe one viable option is for the government to set up a “reform committee” to carry out sweeping reforms in different social aspects such as our political system, in such a way that while people’s voices will get heard more effectively, Beijing will also feel comfortable with it.

Also, the reform committee should revamp our tax system in order to redress the wealth inequality in society, as well as step up efforts at building new homes with an innovative mindset.

After all, in order to heal our society, we need to set our sights on improving our future rather than looking backward and struggling with our past.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 11

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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HKEJ contributor