Is the ‘third road’ a political dead end for Hong Kong?
Hongkongers are questioning whether there is room for moderate voices in local politics during an age of police clashes and street riots
Two weeks ago, I travelled to Beijing to speak at an international literary festival. It was one of the largest events of its kind in mainland China and certainly the most daring judging by some of the sensitive topics it covered: territorial disputes, gay rights and religious freedom. My talks on the political future of Hong Kong centred around the rise of radical opposition forces and the growing polarization of society in the post-Occupy era. A single question kept popping up during the Q&A sessions: in the age of police clashes and street riots, is there any room for moderate voices in local politics?
The short answer, I told my audiences, is “not at the moment.” These days, compromise and pragmatism are such dirty words that the mere utterance of them would draw not only suspicious glares but also vicious trolling on social media. The idea that freedom-loving citizens should sit down and talk to their pro-Beijing government conjures up not images of savvy dealmakers perfecting the “art of the possible” (to quote Otto von Bismarck), but the ugly memory of greasy pan-democratic old-timers exchanging a Faustian handshake with the Liaison Office over the 2010 electoral reform package. During last month’s by-election to fill Ronny Tong’s vacated Legislative Council seat, ex-Democratic Party member Nelson Wong ran on a “middle way” platform and promised to bury the hatchet and build bridges. Wong’s campaign faltered, in part because of his bumbling public persona and in part because his moderate rhetoric failed to register a pulse in the electorate.
The middle ground
Then there is the godfather of political moderation: Ronny Tong. Disgusted with toxic partisanship that culminated in the defeat of the 2015 electoral reform bill, Tong resigned from both Legco and the Civic Party shortly thereafter to forge what he called the “third road” – a more reconciliatory stance toward Beijing as an alternative to the adversarial pan-dems. The self-proclaimed centrist founded a think tank called the Path of Democracy and recruited a handful of respected scholars. So far, the pathfinders have not gained much traction in the public narrative. It is death by anonymity: no one is talking about them.
Neither Wong nor Tong ought to be surprised. Reconciliation is not in vogue, at least for the time being. There is so much anger in the air, and with that comes radicalization. After Occupy ended without achieving any of the political gains it had set out to achieve, radical splinter groups seized on the post-movement emotional void and drafted many former protesters into their army of fun ching, the Cantonese phrase for “angry youth.” Their combative, take-no-prisoner gospel appealed to the disillusioned Umbrella Kids much more so than any humdrum sermon on dialogue and deal-making. It is political marketing 101 – just ask Donald Trump.
To be fair, radicalisation is more by circumstance than by choice. The third road is premised on seeking common ground, which by definition requires some degree of give-and-take. But with increasing Beijing intervention in local affairs, the Hong Kong government is forced to capitulate on important policy issues and take direct orders from the communist leadership.
Young people need to get their frustrations out of the system so that the healing can begin. Racialisation is part of the city’s coming of age. In the 1970s and 1980s, angry students and violent opposition parties in Taiwan and South Korea exhibited many of the same symptoms, before the countries reached their political maturity and blossomed into full-fledged democracies. Hong Kong may be a few decades behind, but we will eventually get there.
Pragmatism will triumph
I told my audiences at the literary event: radicalisation is only a passing phase and pragmatism will one day return. Once their emotions subside, the fun ching will realise that their combative approach, no matter how cathartic, will ultimately do little, if anything at all, to bring a freer Hong Kong. They will come to the conclusion that dialogue, in whatever form it may take, still has the best chance of yielding tangible political results. Hongkongers can never outgun the communists; we will have to outsmart them at the negotiation table.
There is reason for us to be cautiously optimistic. With the Chinese leadership increasingly embroiled in high-stakes factional infighting and the economy showing signs of serious weakening, Beijing has far bigger fish to fry than whether the Hong Kong Airport should have a third runway or if street vendors in Mongkok can sell fish balls on Chinese New Year’s Day. And if more heavyweights like mainland property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang come out swinging against President Xi Jinping or the Shanghai Composite drops another 10 per cent, then the beanstalk giant just might loosen its grip on Hong Kong and crack the door open for a third road.
A fourth path?
In the meantime, while we continue to debate whether the third road will lead us anywhere, a fourth path has emerged. Joshua Wong announced earlier this week that Scholarism, the activist group he founded in 2011, would be disbanded to make way for a new political party ahead of the September general election. Wong said that his new baby – still to be given a name – would seek a middle way within the opposition camp.
It is too early to predict whether voters will warm to Scholarism 2.0, but one thing is certain: the days of predictable two-camp politics are over in Hong Kong. As our political spectrum gets more crowded, the moderates will, in the not so distant future, come out of the woodwork and cease to be the politicians who dare not speak their name.