Occupy Central

Relax, Occupy Central won't end the world as we know it

Keane Shum says modern digital business practices and the city's network of elevated walkways mean that the Occupy movement will not shut down Central, despite the doomsday scenarios

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 August, 2014, 5:16pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 August, 2014, 1:37am

I used to occupy Central. I used to grab a sandwich and sit in Statue Square or Chater Garden and feel like I owned the place, because unlike the rest of Central during lunch hour, I never had to wait in line to get a seat. These outdoor areas are sometimes so sparsely populated, even on a cool, clear day, that a couple of friends and I once entertained ourselves in Statue Square by watching a solitary cockroach scamper across the concrete tiles. It was the only one of us who needed unimpeded access through the square to go about its business.

The rest of us, once lunch was over, returned to our respective offices in Prince's Building, the Cheung Kong Center, and ICBC Tower through the series of covered, elevated walkways so interconnected and comprehensive that the Hong Kong Tourism Board tells visitors, "Once you've arrived, you never have to come back down to earth."

It's not an exaggeration: visitors to Hong Kong need never touch the ground from the moment they step off their plane until they reach any given destination in Central. From the jet bridge to the Airport Express, through IFC and over Connaught Road, you can reach as far as Star Street to the east and the Macau Ferry Terminal to the west, as far north as the Star Ferry and as far south as Conduit Road without ever setting foot outdoors at ground level.

What is an exaggeration is the idea that a few - even 10 - thousand people sitting in Statue Square and the surrounding streets is going to shut down Central, let alone Hong Kong. I learned a lot less than I should have during my years working in Central, but I did learn that not only can you circumnavigate the entirety of Central in any direction without stepping outside or on the ground, you can also execute billion-dollar mergers and IPOs without stepping away from your desk.

Funds are of course wired electronically. Contracts are signed and exchanged over email. Conference calls are innumerable and interminable. Half the major banks have already moved across the harbour to the ICC, anyway, and the few times that deal teams actually need to meet in person, they congregate at places that are all accessible by an MTR exit or, naturally, an elevated walkway.

Tourism, we have been warned, will also suffer, but I have never seen a single tourist keeping off the grass around the Cenotaph. What few tourists stop in Statue Square or Chater Garden are instructed by the Tourism Board to take cover indoors and "mosey around Central on rainy days without your feet touching the ground". The Central heritage corridor captures a fascinating slice of our city's history, but that is simply not why most tourists come to Hong Kong. They come to shop, and it is a mystery to me why a blockade of the streets of Central would discourage them from plundering Causeway Bay, which seems to have only attracted more tourists since its own streets were blockaded. Occupy Causeway Bay might have been the better tactic.

The government and the anti-Occupy camp, apparently now one and the same, are suffering from one of two possible afflictions. Either they are completely out of touch with what drives tourism and the BlackBerry age of financial services, or they are deliberately fear-mongering and cultivating the demonisation of Occupy Central by conjuring images of riot police and mass unrest. As long ago as June of last year, the chief executive had already written off Occupy Central, declaring "there will be no possibility of it being lawful or peaceful".

Some predict Hong Kong will devolve into Bangkok, even Kiev.

Occupy Central will certainly not be lawful - that is the whole point - but to suggest it will resemble anything close to the turmoil in Thailand or Ukraine is absurd. I have spent much of the last year in Bangkok, including the day of the coup, and this is not Bangkok. No one will be ducking behind the HSBC lions lobbing grenades or firing rocket launchers. And if our situation bears any resemblance to Kiev, it is only in the government's unsettling insistence that violence is inevitable, even as it has had 20 months to prepare.

I like to believe the government has all our best interests in mind, and does ultimately want to bring democracy to Hong Kong. But there is a stubbornness in its approach - the fumbled response to the white paper on "one country, two systems", the tone-deaf initial report to the National People's Congress, and its senior leaders' extraordinary endorsement of the anti-Occupy petition - that is discomforting precisely because it rejects the democratic principle of pluralism. In its refusal to consider Occupy Central as anything but extremist and destabilising, and in its dire warnings of the cataclysm into which Central is supposedly about to descend, the government has only further emboldened the movement and, in the process, lost touch with reality.

None of us are immune to tunnel vision. Occupy Central's non-negotiable stance on civic nomination, which I once shared, is probably counterproductive. Had it not been such an explosive issue, the central government may not have felt the need to reject it outright, leaving the possibility that progressive members of the nominating committee, however it is eventually constituted, could have personally decided their choice of nominee by informally conducting an open poll similar to the June referendum.

We all need to stop missing the obvious. Whether its supporters like it or not, Occupy Central is not going to bring the city to its knees. Civil nomination as a formal element of electoral reform for 2017 is unlikely. Civil disobedience is supposed to break the law.

This much is also obvious: the law that says some people in Hong Kong are entitled to more of a say than the rest of us is an unjust one. Those who participate in Occupy Central feel obligated to peacefully disobey an unjust law, and are willing to be arrested for it. They will be arrested. The world will not end, and soon enough, I can go back to having my quiet lunch among the cockroaches in Statue Square.

Keane Shum is a lawyer in Hong Kong