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Occupy Central

Occupy Central activists must consider price to pay for raising stakes

Tim Collard says active civil disobedience would leave no room for retreat

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 July, 2014, 12:17pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 November, 2016, 8:29am

Matters regarding the establishment of universal suffrage in Hong Kong in 2017 have come to a head rather sooner than most expected. Was it wise for Occupy Central and its allies to raise the stakes so high so early? We are now awaiting a decision by the National People's Congress on the question of Hong Kong's electoral system, which is likely to lead to a hardening of the fronts on both sides.

In advance of the NPC statement, radical activist groups are proposing to launch a civil disobedience campaign next month. The groups say this may not be necessary, as direct nomination for candidates has yet to be formally ruled out; but they are assuming the worst.

Indeed, they are right to assume the worst, as it is hardly conceivable that the NPC will leave any room for doubt as to the central government's position on nomination.

A campaign of active civil disobedience, as well as putting great pressure on Hong Kong's institutions, will severely test the concept of "one country, two systems"; let us hope it will not test it to destruction.

One iron rule I learnt when working as a diplomat in China was this: never ask a question if it will only provoke the answer you don't wish to hear.

It was most unwise of the radical wing of the pan-democrats to neglect this proviso. Understandably, many in Hong Kong have no time for advice from representatives of the old colonial power. But one person whose modus operandi remains worth studying is Chris Patten, Hong Kong's last governor. Seemingly on a hiding to nothing, with constant fulminations against him emanating from Beijing and only dubious support from his own diplomats, he managed a creditable fighting retreat, leaving Hong Kong self-confident and well prepared to establish a modus vivendi with the central government on the "one country, two systems" principle.

To have given in during the run-up to the handover would have left the territory essentially rudderless, with the mainland authorities calling all the shots. As it was, Patten retained control of events to the very end, by which time he had established a space for free public debate over Hong Kong's future, which Hongkongers could use to establish among themselves precisely how much or how little democracy they wanted and were prepared to stand up for. Yes, this is now an internal Chinese issue, but it cannot be denied that the democrats' situation has some similarities to that of the British in the mid-1990s.

And if that is the case, raising the crunch issues at an early stage conforms to the Patten playbook. But it remains to be seen whether the pro-democracy camp can manage the "fighting retreat" tactic anywhere near as well. Burning bridges is unlikely to allow for a retreat to defensible positions; that is, of course, the point of it, to try to bolster desperate courage by leaving no possibility of retreat or compromise.

And the central government might also do well to rein in some of its more enthusiastic outriders: those who respond to pan-democratic provocation by sounding "more Catholic than the Pope", and describing attempts to draw international attention to Hong Kong as "conspiring with foreigners".

Nobody can seriously think the outside world wishes to interfere: we simply want the successful post-1997 settlement to continue for everybody's benefit.

For that, it is vital to avoid provoking Beijing into a face-saving crackdown that would leave Hong Kong worse off than before.

Civil disobedience will always remain an option in a free society; but maybe it is an option better not exercised. At the very least, some fallback positions should be prepared before the confrontation becomes really damaging.

Tim Collard is a former UK diplomat specialising in China. He spent nine years as an analyst in Beijing