No logical reason for Hong Kong's pan-democrats to walk into political reform death trap

Stephen Vines says breaking pledges would alienate the next generation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 10:38am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 May, 2015, 10:38am

There is much talk about the growing polarisation and extreme expression of political views in Hong Kong. Defying logic, it is suggested that if the democrats can be persuaded to vote for an election system they profoundly distrust, the temperature will be lowered and "more rational" discussion will ensue.

It is hard to exaggerate the wrong-headedness of this argument. The reality is that if democrat legislators forsake their frequent pledges to block the government's proposals, there will be an eruption of anger and a deepening feeling that trying to obtain reform through constitutional channels needs to be abandoned in favour of confrontation on the streets.

As matters stand, the government's opponents remain largely committed to using both peaceful and constitutional means of expressing their opinion. However, if it appears that all or some of the democratic movement's leaders have "betrayed" the movement by voting for this plan, they will not only have lost the trust of their supporters but will provoke a degree of anger leading to profound consequences.

This is an obvious problem for the democrats and it is one reason why the anti-democrats are gleefully urging them down this lethal path. But it is also a problem for society because, once this degree of distrust and cynicism grips a large swathe of the population, the business of governance becomes infinitely more difficult.

It is often stated that the purpose of politics, not least political reform, is to safeguard the future of coming generations. Yet we are told that the younger generation is unqualified to join the debate. However, they have pushed themselves into the debate with the extraordinary mobilisation of young people in the Umbrella Movement and a level of engagement with political reform issues showing that they are more likely to be reform-minded than their parents.

This does not necessarily lead to generational confrontation as the experience of the Umbrella Movement demonstrated when a bridge was built between the most articulate and activist members of the younger generation and older political campaigners. This bridge served to ensure a peaceful end to the occupations and has now drawn younger activists into mainstream political activity, including running in elections and getting involved in neighbourhood campaigns.

The only people who have an interest in destroying this bridge are those who have convinced themselves that Hong Kong can only flourish without a viable democratic opposition. They know that the phony proposals for democratic reform will be defeated in the Legislative Council but they are hardly bothered by this prospect because they believe that the process of defeat will deal a deathly blow to the democrats.

The democrats themselves often appear to be wandering blindly into this trap and resort to tactics that diminish their support. However, their room for manoeuvre is constrained by the realities of Hong Kong's situation as part of China and no one underestimates the herculean task facing a small region of the People's Republic trying to assert its constitutionally derived differentiation from the rest of the country.

However if politics is, as the pragmatists say, the art of the possible, there can be no reason for democrats to wander into a death trap that will hasten their extinction and force them to do what they know to be deeply flawed in principle.

How democratic legislators vote will have a seminal impact on how the next generation views politics and sees their place in society. If they smell the pungent odour of betrayal, they will head down a far more radical and unpredictable path. The art of the possible also means that this is neither inevitable nor indeed necessary.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur