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Mong Kok riot

Everybody loses in Hong Kong game of political stalemate

Keane Shum says protesters and the government keep playing the same game to the same standstill, when they should be trying to change the script

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 February, 2016, 6:22pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 February, 2016, 6:22pm

If the images last week of young people in Mong Kok not shopping for sneakers but instead battering the pavement to throw bricks at police officers – and an officer aiming his gun back at them – were shocking, the recriminations have been stubbornly familiar.

The roles, even the lines, are well rehearsed now. The government, whether intending to assert its authority or simply carry out routine administrative tasks, takes clumsy actions that seem completely oblivious to public sentiment.

Then the discontents, sensing an opening, chaotically overreach, likewise oblivious to the spectre of mob violence and anarchy they represent in a city composed almost entirely of families who came to Hong Kong to escape mob violence and anarchy.

The government and its supporters are sharp in their rebukes, condemning the naive and reckless – also unpatriotic/subversive/separatist – youths who would try to tear apart the fabric of society, undermine the rule of law and abuse our sterling police force. Voices of the protest movement preface their pronouncements by saying they are not trying to justify violence, but that the government should accept some responsibility for breeding discontent.

The government does no such thing. And so we are left no closer to passing intellectual property laws that strike a healthy balance between fostering creativity and protecting free speech, nurturing lively but respectful discourse in our universities, or keeping Mong Kok the safe shopping district where I can find rare Nikes and sink my teeth into a stick of fishballs.

Both sides keep playing the same game to the same standstill, only instead of a draw, everyone loses, the spectators most of all. This feels painfully obvious to me and, I can only hope, to government and protest leaders as well. Why then aren’t they trying to change the script?

This was never going to be easy, integrating one of the most freewheeling cities into history’s largest communist autocracy

This was never going to be easy, integrating one of the most freewheeling cities in modern times into history’s largest communist autocracy. But the government hasn’t done itself any favours by consistently demonising anyone who expresses what is clearly a widely held fear of the mainland encroaching on our way of life.

Why not accept that this was always going to be a difficult transition and openly probe the depth of our fissures? The chief executive and his administration could go on a listening tour to hear people’s concerns and let them vent their anger with words, not bricks.

READ MORE: Inside Mong Kok – Hong Kong’s simmering melting pot where passions can boil over

Pragmatic suggestions from the public could be implemented in the spirit of responding to the citizenry – “From the masses, to the masses”, as Mao would say – rather than appear as giving in to protesters’ demands. A government website could log petitions and trigger an official response if they reach a threshold of, say, 10,000 signatures.

A series of public debates on law, culture and identity could bring together officials, academics and students, not unlike the civil discussion the chief secretary had with the Occupy student leaders in October 2014.

Acknowledging that it must be doing something wrong for people to be so angry doesn’t have to mean the government is appeasing radicals; it can still prosecute violent criminals with the full force of the law even while making a good-faith effort to understand and try to remedy what pushed those criminals past the limit. At the same time, protest leaders should unequivocally denounce and disassociate themselves from criminal elements like those who ransacked Mong Kok and pledge to never use force to achieve their goals. The hooligans in Mong Kok weren’t just wrong. They were stupid, and may have surrendered what little public goodwill for the protest movement remains. All successful non-violent movements have had radical, violent – even terrorist – fringes, but strategically refused to have their causes hijacked by them.

There is no shortage of issues that make a large plurality of Hongkongers wary of the ever-lengthening arm of mainland Chinese justice

Assuming the protest leaders have a strategy, it should focus on the matters that concern large swathes of the populace: universal suffrage, freedom of expression, and, now, arbitrary detention.

For there is no shortage of issues that make a large plurality, if not a majority, of Hongkongers wary of the ever-lengthening arm of mainland Chinese justice. Those are the issues to rally peacefully around – not street hawking and parallel trading – and reclaim the moral high ground. Seize these opportunities by capturing the public’s sympathy through strictly non-violent protest, and not just the usual marches and sit-ins. The box office success of Ten Years proved that there is a large, willing audience still ready to engage the debate as long as it is presented creatively, thoughtfully and professionally. Amateur hour is long over.

READ MORE: Beijing signals less tolerant approach in branding instigators of Mong Kok riot as Hong Kong ‘separatists’

The growing pains of our curious reverse adoption by China were inevitable. But another violent outburst and this seemingly endless loop of political stalemates don’t have to be. With some humility, and a little innovation, we could find some common ground; maybe even some solutions.

Or we can each stick to our tried, tested and failed ways and watch the same scenes play out over and over again for the next 31 years.

Keane Shum is a lawyer in Hong Kong