The road to healing

July 06, 2020 09:22
Photo: Bloomberg

“Let Hong Kong heal.”

What does this slogan – oft-repeated by politicians and activists alike – really mean? Could there genuinely be a path towards healing, given the embittered polarisation and seemingly unbridgeable gulfs that have driven Hong Kong apart over the past year?

The Establishment claims that the path to Hong Kong’s healing constitutes the offering of socioeconomic perks and subsidies to those who are struggling under the double whammy of the civil unrest and COVID-19 Outbreak. Some in that camp are genuinely convinced that handouts and land reforms could ameliorate the deeply rooted antagonism and disillusionment of the Hong Kong masses. Others – those in the know – see the advocating of these policies as the most expedient means of restoring “normalcy” to Hong Kong.

On the other hand, radical opposition members posit that there is little to no point to “healing”. For many of them, it’s an all-out war that they are waging currently, and the movement must necessarily pursue an “all or nothing” approach – where the alternative, to their vision of “total victory”, is mutual annihilation. Those with seats to contest and votes to gain in September have every reason to think that speaking of “healing” is both premature and impossible – the former, for ideological purity compels them to situate their tactics within the broader context of an existential conflict; the latter, for there exists – unfortunately – minimal trust between the government and the public.

Healing Hong Kong is a rather mellifluous slogan – it has a nice ring to it, and certainly could be employed to court a few hundred extra votes here and there. Talk is cheap, yet action is both harder, and takes much longer.

Here are some facts: up until early June 2020 (with the numbers indubitably higher given recent events), over 8,000 individuals had been arrested for their alleged involvement in the civil unrest and ongoing protests. Over 3,000 of them – nearly a half of the total number of arrestees – were students.

It’s easy to paint all 8,000 of them with a single, broad brush. Those in the opposition portray them all as “martyrs”, or as “warriors” struggling for freedom – despite the fact that many of them were arrested for actions or behaviours that they did not necessarily consent to undertaking; did not understand; or for which were necessarily responsible. More importantly, perhaps, such romanticisation neglects the trauma that Hong Kong has, as a collective of over 7.4 million lives, undergone over the past year – vigilantism, breakdown of well-established institutions and law and order, as well as endless cycles of violence as police and civilians clash.

On the other hand, many of the more conservative Establishment voices have sought to demonise all 8,000 of these youths, typecasting them as fundamentally corrupted and maleficent. Yet such characterisation simply does not sit well with the fact that many of the arrestees have yet to complete high school or university education; that many more come from broken families, and are victims of socioeconomic inequalities and systemic neglect. Of course, those who engage with riotous behaviours and secessionist violence ought to be held accountable for their flagrant violations of the law, yet a vast majority of those arrested do not – in my opinion – harbour a genuine desire to see Hong Kong burn. Many of those landed themselves behind bars – in the courts; in detention centres, and, most grimly, in Hong Kong’s prisons – as wasted pawns deserted, by both the movement they have so ardently fought for, and by those whom they believe they are fighting for.

Hong Kong is undergoing a mental health crisis. Many of these arrested youths are plagued by mental health conditions – ranging from chronic anxiety, depression, to bipolar disorder. Many have found their pre-existing conditions exacerbated – to the point where they are overwhelmed by catatonic fatalism.

These conditions do not go away with the so-called “character-building” that prisons seemingly offer. They also do not dissipate with the loud, monotonous chanting of “Law and Order!” that some have advocated, seemingly in lieu of substantive solutions. Above all, these conditions do not produce productive, proactive members who could contribute to Hong Kong’s path to recovery.

Mental health conditions are a stealthy assassin – they kill, with no fanfare or drums, perhaps; yet they kill, with wanton precision. Even if these youth, despite Hong Kong’s dilapidated and hugely overburdened mental health system, somehow emerge broadly intact from the penal experience, they are likely to be scarred for life.

These scars don’t just affect their owners – there’s also their family and friends, too. The immense mental pressures generated by the threats of harsh sentencing and imprisonment would only drive communities and families further apart, thereby stifling prospects of reconciliation between them and the government.

Yet this would also entail further radicalisation and fragmentation, as associates of the arrestees – infuriated and convinced that their “sacrifices” render them martyrs – turn to low-intensity violence or passive resistance as a means of expressing their discontents. Such sentiments would indubitably impede the prospects of Hong Kong returning to normal. Granting that many Hong Kongers and the administration alike would prefer a de-politicised Hong Kong, which re-orients itself about rectifying socioeconomic disparities and material deprivation, this vision for the city would certainly be held back by the acrimonious, lingering aftertaste to the past year of unrest.

It is in Beijing and Hong Kong’s interests alike for Hong Kong to heal. Vigilante, disruptive protests induce – as the past year has shown – significant economic uncertainty and sociopolitical instability; more troublingly, a fractured society is most susceptible, now more than ever, to extremist rhetoric that hijacks both calls for political reforms and genuinely constructive criticisms of the city’s governance. To pull Hong Kong from the brink of collapse into disorder, the government must – per the Chinese proverb – adopt a “carrot-and-stick” approach. Baselines must be upheld when it comes to issues of national security, but when it comes to the city’s mostly cherubic, certainly battered youth, it is high time for all parties to set aside political differences, and come together in enabling their rehabilitation.

The past year hasn’t been easy for Hong Kong. Weekends of turmoil, violence, impropriety on part of all parties – including those who are tasked with great responsibilities and granted significant powers – have left the city in ruins. It’s high time for stability to be restored to Hong Kong – but this is a process that necessarily takes time, and requires actors with political conviction and devotion. As a civil society, we must do what we can.

Let Hong Kong heal, and let us genuinely start afresh.

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Assistant Professor, HKU