Hard lessons of the Occupy protests

Philip Bowring says both officials and demonstrators ought to review not just what went wrong, or right, for them, but also what the movement tells us about Hong Kong's ills

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 November, 2014, 6:16am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 November, 2014, 6:16am

As I write, it's not over yet, but there are many lessons to be learned from the Occupy protests. The most important for the main protagonists is that no amount of passion and successful tactics can substitute for lack of strategy. It was said of the 19th-century anarchist Mikhail Bakunin that he was essential for the first days of a revolution - and should then be shot. Real revolutions needed Leninist "science", not the romanticism of the anarchists.

Thus Hong Kong's peaceful umbrella "revolution" had its inspirational Joshua Wong Chi-fung, and the determination of the students encouraged tens of thousands more to join the protest movement. But it lacked one vital ingredient - an exit strategy.

Given that there was no way its declared aims could be realised other than in the much longer term, the movement needed to maximise its propaganda impact in Hong Kong and overseas. Its longevity has been impressive, but returns have been gradually diminishing as public boredom and some frustration set in. Best to have ended the protests much earlier but with a promise to return, or sustain them in a different way. Concern not to lose face by ending the demonstrations before a concrete result could be shown has proven damaging.

On the government side, concern not to lose face by making any overt concessions was equally obvious. But this seems to have proved quite a successful strategy. After a series of serious tactical errors - the tear gas, Leung Chun-ying's speech, and so on - sitting tight, avoiding confrontation but yielding nothing proved the correct response.

And if the police were to be used to clear the streets, it would be the result of private-sector initiatives sanctioned by the courts. Thus, demonstrators were confronted by a very real choice: remove themselves from the roads or submit peacefully to being arrested.

Given that the Hong Kong government has been in such disarray, with no leadership from Leung, the strategy seems to have emanated from the central government's liaison office. This was a little local difficulty which must be resolved without mayhem but without concessions. If that took time, so be it. Time was on the side of the government.

But the Beijing and government claim that the demonstrations are a threat to the rule of law was nonsense of the sort to be expected in a one-party state where the party makes and interprets the law. Civil disobedience has a long and honourable history in states ruled by law. By definition, it accepts the legal system. The protesters are not attempting to overthrow the system but draw attention to unjust laws or discrimination in voting, whether that involved women in Britain in the early 20th century, blacks in the United States or, now, the poorer classes in Hong Kong. Individuals suffer through fines and jail terms in the cause of righting legal and social wrongs.

The issues now will not just be how many protesters end up actually being arrested - turning themselves in to the police is a silly and soft option. But more important is whether the government itself and its core in the business and bureaucratic elite have learned any lessons about the links between economic discontent and political representation. Although there are some signs that the broader business community appreciates that frustrations run deep, the elite still seems to be about as obdurate and greedy as its counterpart in Thailand.

A small classic example of the bureaucratic elite's failure to learn was the recent report recommending a pay increase for top civil servants but not the rest. It should be no surprise that the panel recommending this was headed by a former senior civil servant who went on to an even more prosperous career with property developers and sits on various other government-appointed committees.

Although these senior bureaucrats enjoy perks and job security unknown in the private sector - yet do not face significant scrutiny by those outside their group despite constant mismanagement of major projects - they somehow seem to expect to be paid as much as, and enjoy a lifestyle similar to that of top private-sector executives. The idea of public service seems to have been eroded in the quest to own more houses or horses.

The same attitudes prevail in police failure to prosecute illegal limousine parking and government reluctance to enforce land and related laws in the New Territories. These failures are not the result of laziness on the part of ordinary police officers or middle-ranking civil servants. They are the direct result of decisions made by the senior ranks for reasons which they are not asked to explain - not even by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

So perhaps another result of the "restoration of law and order" on the streets of Admiralty and Mong Kok will be a focus on unequal treatment of the majority in Hong Kong as well as the vast inequality of income. An independent judiciary is of limited use if the application of laws is unequal. So, let us all look for fairer government and the rule of law.

Universal suffrage is no cure-all but something needed to be done to try to shake this government out of lethargy and protection of vested interests. It may not have succeeded. If so, the long-term cost to society will be huge.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator