Where have the moderates gone?

August 17, 2020 08:59
Photo: Reuters

We all saw the National Security Law coming – after all, a year of violence, instability, civilian-police altercation, and, above all, a bizarre frenzy in courting the favours of foreign powers.

It may not be what some Hong Kongers wanted – but it’s what we should all very well have expected; an inevitable closing act to a year of turmoil. The writing was on the (Lennon) Wall – yes, the walls plastered with certain slogans and materials portraying Beijing as the alleged Nemesis of the Hong Kong people, that decidedly framed the ongoing protests as something akin to a “revolution”.

And the bona fide hawks are out from both sides; they’ve emerged from the woodworks: from the Establishment, we’ve seen a surge in blatantly jingoistic and sycophantic rhetoric, with frenzied cheerleaders yielding more damage than benefit to the country they ostensibly support – genuine nationalistic devotion calls for pragmatic solutions catering to Beijing and Hong Kong’s interests alike, not obsequious, ornamental gestures. Some are adamant that law and order must be restored to Hong Kong, whilst overlooking the fact that laws lacking transparency and public communication (thus undermining their buy-in) and order built upon inorganic homogeneity are unlikely to be conducive towards the city’s organic growth. Finally, apparent communication gaps between the local establishment and Beijing have left Beijing with few options but to turn to taking matters into their own hands. If anyone had bothered thinking from the point of view of Beijing, they should and would not be surprised that the National Security Law was passed – for many bureaucrats and political heavyweights up north, the law was a necessary move to mollify a city that had been failed by its local political class.

On the other hand, we’ve witnessed a plethora of equally trenchant populists increasingly fronting the opposition movement. The movement has shifted – as a matter of both political necessity (in courting votes and maintaining continued support) and emotive resentment (towards their perceived enemy) – from eminently reasonable calls for democratisation and political accountability, to engaging in rhetoric that flagrantly antagonises Beijing. The seasoned opposition politicians should be well-aware and mindful of the fact that once domestic affairs in Hong Kong are escalated to a level that is seen by Beijing as fundamentally antithetical to its national security – there’s no going back. Yet, as a matter of reasons to do with what they perceive to be political integrity (and what Establishment parliamentarians deem to be ostensible foreign funding), they decry their lack of alternatives and turn to dialing up their rhetoric.

And here we have it – a proxy Cold War playing out before our eyes, on the streets of Sham Shui Po and air-conditioned corridors of Admiralty. A Greek tragedy, with the hamartia – of nameless tragic heroes – being perhaps obstinacy, perhaps ideological rigidity.

Where have the moderates gone? One may wonder.

Home, you could say. They’ve gone home.

Whatever’s left of the moderate camp – a camp that loathes draconian encroachment and populist violence alike, that believes Hong Kong remains a critical part of China yet deserves its own liberties and freedoms, that stands for Hong Kong values whilst advocating organic and mutually beneficial integration within China – is, to say the least, rapidly dwindling in numbers. Democrats bash them for being idealistic fools. Establishment folks cast dispersions upon them for their lack of loyalty and refusal to “play the game” of climbing the greasy ladder. Yet, ironically and poignantly, these are also the very individuals that are pivotal to reconciling and facilitating healing in a deeply divided society.

The moderates are disillusioned – disillusioned by the fact that events they’d prophesised a year ago have gradually unfolded and materialised, or by the continued demonisation by parties bent on labelling them by intent and imposing undue burdens of proving efficacy. After all, if efficacy is indeed the dimension by which success is measured, it seems that all parties are none the better: the Establishment clearly lacks insights as to how Hong Kong could be reformed in a manner that is both emancipatory and egalitarian; the Opposition, on the other hand, has turned to the futile bandwagon of transforming Hong Kong into an outpost of anti-Chinese warfare. The latter is undesirable, unjustifiable, and blatantly counterproductive. The former would destroy the uniqueness of this city, transforming it not only into just any other Chinese city (Shanghai and Shenzhen are faring just fine, mind you), but into a second-tier mainland city.

Yet the moderates are also disempowered. At an age where political discourse and deliberation broadly pan out in the form of soundbites, tweets and retweets, and flame wars on Facebook comment threads, the nuances and caveats of the moderate worldview are very much lost on the audience – let alone laypersons who are sick to their bones of inaccessible arguments detached from their subjective realities. In an electoral system that rewards the obtaining of a guaranteed critical mass, and where vote foiling is lethal to the prospects of any “minority faction”, moderate political hacks – centrists, “pragmatists”, whatever labels they decide to don for the purpose of elections – clearly flounder. Such disempowerment is amplified by the fact that Hong Kong stands at the brink of a new Cold War – a Thucydides Trap that takes no prisoners, to borrow the words of Graham Allison.

But moderates need not, and should not despair. Hong Kong has a vibrant civil society, with largely intact legal and economic infrastructure, as well as a thriving entrepreneurial environment. More importantly, Hong Kong still has many who view themselves as a part of China, and believe – firmly – that retaining Hong Kong’s unique features is instrumental in propelling organic growth and development across the border.

I close with a somewhat contentious proposition. It is high time for moderates to shun “moderatism” as a label. What is moderatism? Which is more moderate, a moderately sweet cake, or a moderately intelligent person? Moderate democrats call themselves moderates; moderate Pro-Establishment folks self-identify as moderates; radical zealots call themselves moderates; apathetic, nonchalant toffs also call themselves moderates. Moderatism is a limping term, impaired by the curious penchant for appearing to be “most rational”, “most reasonable”, “most moderate” stemming from the residual influences of Confucian culture.

Genuine moderates must stand for reforms – reforms that align Hong Kong’s interests with Beijing’s, whilst retaining much of what makes Hong Kong special and preserving Hong Kong’s core values. Hong Kong is and should remain a part of China – there’s no question about that. Yet how this relationship is calibrated, renegotiated, and preserved, remains an unresolved quandary for any and all – who see themselves as Chinese Hong Kongers – to solve.

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Assistant Professor, HKU