Occupy has politicised Hong Kong people. For a movement espousing the democratic ideal and fighting for democratic reform this is not a bad thing. Neither is it for the people of a city who may question the protesters’ tactics but not their political leaning. It’s sometimes easy to forget that the anti-occupy Alliance proclaims to stand for democracy as well as peace.
Hong Kong politics has become more polarised. However, this is not because of occupy alone. The protests may have created a situation, but it is the reaction and the politics behind it that has widened the divide. This political division, and the protagonist and antagonist that tread the political stage, each appealing ever more loudly to the audience, have brought the politics of division to the street.
In the fight for public opinion one of the core values of Hong Kong was an early victim: honesty.
In politics as in life, truth is bent to varying levels. Only those who feel unchallenged in their authority, who believe they not only frame the truth but define it, may deal in outright lies. There is a divide to cross both in our conscience and in our understanding of authority. This has always been a distinction between Hong Kong and our motherland.
Judicial independence and press freedom has helped assure the state does not have a monopoly on the truth. The values that they embody, of rule of law and free enquiry, has taught a generation of Hong Kong people to trust in our authorities in a way our countrymen on the Mainland can and do not. Today, for the generation that will inherit this city, this trust is close to breaking.
Trust is built over generations. Institutions may continue, but public confidence is learnt through experience. Like any relationship there will be challenging situations. These do not challenge trust in itself, but rather create a situation in which we ourselves may compromise this trust. The actions of an unfaithful partner may hurt, but it is not the action in itself that causes us to lose faith. It is the lie, either in the denial or in the betrayal on that which a relationship is based. It is on the lie rather than the action on which our trust falters.
It is very disturbing to read, as I did recently, that Jasper Tsang is a moderate voice because he has not repeated the claim that the protests are a result of foreign interference. Neither is he a moderate because he highlighted the distinction between the occupy protestors and the crowd of localists who smashed window and attempted to storm the Legislative Council building. All he has done in both cases is state the truth.
I like Tsang Yuk Sing, and I do consider him a more moderate voice. But in judging he moderation of his position should not depend on him sticking to the truth of a situation, but on how he interprets and responds to it.
It is extremely worrying too that so many people who claim to care about Hong Kong and who describe themselves as defenders of civil society not only overlook the increasing dishonesty of our politics, but actively disseminate lies.
There have been stockbrokers spreading tales that Jimmy Lai orchestrated the whole protests in order to make billions trading in futures, though all unprofessionally fails to provide any evidence to support their opinions. A woman I meet on the street during the Mong Kok clearance told me with complete conviction that protestors had been paid $1000 a day by the U.S. and U.K. governments. When I asked her if she had any evidence of this she grew aggressive and accused me of taking money as well. Without any evidence that pro-democracy protestors are taking bribes her conviction seems a result of self-delusion, and her accusation based not on fact but in reaction to similar and documented claims made by protestors of the pro-government faction.
I have in fact seen money changing hands at anti-occupy rallies, and have even overheard a conversation between two people complaining that they were not paid what had been agreed. Indeed Regina Ip and Robert Chow even acknowledge these payments, reasoning that it was appropriate given that many people had to travel in to the city from their homes to protest. Not only does this reasoning question the commitment of these people to their cause, but it also seems overly generous given bus and train tickets do not cost several hundred dollars.
A few weeks ago I did an informal survey asking people who were strongly against the protests on what their position was based. The top five reasons were:
1. Foreign Interference – that the U.S. and possibly the U.K. had instigated and provide material support to the protests in the hope of weakening China.
This despite there being neither any evidence of such direct interference or support of the protest movement, nor a compelling motivation for the U.S. or U.K. to do so. Both countries having far too much invested in China’s economic rise to risk damaging relations with Beijing. Beijing, on the other hand, not only has the motivation to make such unfounded claims, but has done so consistently whenever faced with any form of internal dissent.
2. The Economic Argument – that the protests have damaged HK’s economy and hurt small businesses.
Whilst Hong Kong’s economy at large has, according to the government’s own figure and those of the World Bank, not noticeably suffered, there is certainly a case to be made that small businesses, especially in the Mong Kok area, have suffered. But as two shop owners on Portland Street who were happy to see the Mong Kok protest cleared made clear, it is not just a case of business being down but that having built up a business over 35 years they find themselves in a position today where running a small business is just about survival. With high rents and having to operate to such tight margins just to survive, let alone earn good money, any small affect on business hurts them directly. If the protests have brought hardship, they have done so by tipping a scale that we have allowed to become so off-kilter.
3. Illegal and a threat to the Rule of Law.
The protests are illegal, but there is a long tradition of civil disobedience not only tolerated but forming an integral part the Rule of Law. This is a point made by several of our leading legal scholars, from Michael Davis to Surya Deva. It is worth noting that many “lawyers”, such as Priscilla Leung, who have been most vocal in opposition are in fact political rather than legal actors. Whilst injunctions must be respected, to declare the entire protest as a clear threat to the Rule of Law is an overstatement.
4. Disorderly and Violent.
The protests have probably garnered most acclaim in the world press for setting new standards in orderliness and non-violence. While there have been isolated cases to the contrary, it is telling that the police, who have by-and-large been exemplary, have more often been recorded losing their composure and lashing out than those protesting. Both sides are tired. Both sides have been provoked and are emotionally exhausted and have reason to feel hurt. And yet, on the whole, both sides have conducted an operation with the kind of consideration and professionalism for which, rather than point accusatory fingers, I am grateful.
By contrast those with blue ribbons have revealed the most ugly and criminal elements that still pervade this city. They have provoked and assaulted, not only protestors but also journalists. As a by-stander I have heard protesters call policemen in provocation “Black police” (black being the colour associated with triad gangs), and chant “Don’t hit” or “Do you not support democracy?”. But these words are very different to what I have heard chanted by those in blue: “Kill these rubbish”, “Traitors, go to America”, and, most disturbing, “Rape them”. One group oppose with a sympathetic humour. The other aggression and vitriol.
And yet, what one side provokes and escalates to violence, it is the other side that is blamed. This despite having yet to hear from a journalist on the street who have found those in yellow a threat.
5. Not Realistic – that the protests could never achieve anything as Beijing will never listen.
And yet the issue has been raised, and Beijing has been forced to publicly address it. Behind the scenes much has been discussed. The assumption behind this point is that Beijing will never listen, let alone consider acting on the wishes of its people. This frankly gives Beijing even less credit than it is due. Even dictatorships must keep a close eye on what its people think, and also note what they are prepared to do. If the students are idealists, those who stick by this point lack neither the imagination nor principle ever to move forward. In a city that prides itself on an entrepreneurial spirit such defeatism may be suggestive of in whom we are really seeing the death of the spirit of Hong Kong.
In summary, 2 points given for to opposing the protests are untrue (a foreign conspiracy and are violent and disorderly); 2 points are points of discussion rather than conviction (a threat to the Rule of Law and have damaged the economy); and the final point is defeatist.
It is also important to note that there is no objection to either what the students seek, in greater democracy and a say in how this city is run; nor in the students objections to a proposed framework of electoral reform that is neither representative of the wishes of the Hong Kong people (around which we are told it was drafted), and the perceived failure of Beijing to honour its promise to preserve Hong Kong’s way of life.
Whilst many people may question the protest tactics, and many more are tired of its perceived affects on day-to-day life and the general intransigence and lack of leadership shown on both sides, it is a negative and reactionary position. No one actually supports the alternative reality, peddled by Beijing, that there is no problem with Hong Kong’s relationship with China, and that there is no reason for discontent. Hong Kong has changed since 1997, and for the overriding majority it has not been a change for the better.
It is not just in public that the rumour mill has spun wildly out of control. Such gullibility to falsehoods and rumours, to be expected to a degree, if still disappointing, among the general public has not ended there. If the last two months has revealed the level of ignorance and lack of the most basic critical skills that still exists in our society, it has been more painful for me personally to see how those who should and sometimes do know better are willing to stoop to maintain a delusion.
When Ken Tsang was taken in custody to a side alley to be beaten by a group of policemen, whether or not he was a trouble-maker or whether or not he had thrown water, urine or another liquid at the police, may mitigate but does not justify what those policemen did. Ken Tsang provided the test that the police officers failed, and it is the force, and not the protestor, who losses credibility.
Yet there have been people in official capacities who continue to argue to the contrary. No better than the most radical protest elements they see only black and white. It is a position both more understandable and easier to forgive in students than in our authorities. The problem is an old bug bear of social life that has come to also define our politics: face.
CY Leung, who has like many legislators and government officials including with Starry Lee and Regina Ip promoted the line on foreign interference, and claimed to have “evidence” of it, must be held to account. Not because he got it wrong, which I suspect he knows given the more general terms in which he now couches this accusation, but because it is a falsehood that continues to be promoted.
The police, who given the size and conditions of their deployment have performed admirably if not with distinction, should measure self-praise with an acknowledgement that mistakes have been made, that these were regrettable, and the protestors have also shown restraint in their reaction. Stick to the truth, and interpret it in a light to build bridges and heal divisions.
Even if the protestors, flaming the fires for a dying occupation, bend the truth to their narrative, it does not give those who oppose them the right to deny the truth. Like Tsang Yuk Sing, we must resist the temptation to promulgate an official lie. From those who speak for institution on which the good life of this city is rightly built, the people should demand and expect more. Under challenge public trust should be re-enforced, not with smears but with greater honesty and integrity.