True Hong Kong pragmatists will rise to the challenge of change

Stephen Vines says Hongkongers will continue their quest for democracy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 July, 2014, 1:29pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 July, 2014, 3:07am

James Baldwin, the great American writer, famously said that "the impossible is the least one can demand". Following the Hong Kong government's latest avowal of its intention to limp slowly away from democracy, it seems that the prospect of achieving true universal suffrage is "impossible".

As matters stand, the Hong Kong government will only tell Beijing what it wants to hear about people's views on constitutional reform, and the stage is set for reforms that will amount to very little indeed. Thus we find Beijing's mealy-mouthed apologists giving up trying to justify this backtracking on previous promises and resorting to a defence which amounts to a single word: pragmatism.

Get real, they moan: can't you people see that change is limited by the fact that Hong Kong is part of the Chinese state? Beijing calls the shots and will continue calling the shots.

Adding insult to injury, they claim to be the only realists. Yet the reality is that nothing remains the same forever.

Modern history demonstrates that dictatorships are frailer than they appear to be and that their demise is usually accompanied by devastating bloodshed. The heroes of history are the people who work to avoid this kind of carnage by refusing to accept things as they are.

This leads the more dim-witted so-called pragmatists to resort to the dubious theory of Chinese exceptionalism, asserting that China is somehow immune from what happens in the rest of the world. In support of this dubious assertion, they rustle up a devotion to Confucianism to claim that the Chinese DNA contains a gene that accepts authority without challenge. They conveniently ignore the crucial Confucian concept of encouraging dissent to help the leaders improve.

Instead, they prefer to tremble and obey. Had the Chinese republican movement followed this advice, China would still be ruled by a decaying Manchu elite.

No one is seriously advocating that Hong Kong dabbles in an attempt to achieve fundamental regime change, but a great many people are prepared to challenge the ossification of society derived from a system of government that is not fit for purpose.

That said, pragmatism is not to be sniffed at, not least because most Hong Kong people regard themselves as pragmatic. This explains a recent opinion poll showing that a majority of people might not like the version of crippled universal suffrage that Beijing has in mind for Hong Kong, but they will grudgingly accept some form of progress as being better than no progress at all.

This view is not an antithesis of a belief in true democracy because it is possible to settle for second best while continuing to fight for the best.

However, the defenders of the status quo actually prefer second best because it works for them.

When the constitutional reform proposals eventually emerge from the bowels of Tamar, it will not mark the end point of the struggle for representative government. The struggle will continue, as Hong Kong is not easily defeated; it has a habit of reinventing itself and overcoming even the most formidable obstacles.

Neat and easy solutions won't do. True pragmatism lies in acknowledging the obstacles and refusing to be worn down by the challenges they present.

History will deliver a devastating rebuff to the weasels who believe that Hong Kong should retreat into meek acceptance of whatever its rulers dole out.

Baldwin was talking about the struggle for equal civil rights for all of America's people at a time when these demands seemed quite impossible. Today, the United States has a black president and most of these "impossible" demands have been met.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur