Hong Kong must now heed the lessons of Occupy, and move on

Gary Cheung says we should learn from the collective failure to bridge the political divide, rather than looking for heroes where there are none

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 October, 2015, 2:10pm
UPDATED : Monday, 05 October, 2015, 2:10pm

Hundreds of people gathered outside government headquarters in Admiralty on September 28 to commemorate the first anniversary of the Occupy Central protests. Yet, supporters of the civil disobedience campaign and pro-democracy movement should move beyond commemorating the event and chanting slogans demanding "genuine universal suffrage". Lessons need to be learned if Hong Kong's democracy fight is to move forward.

As Spanish philosopher and novelist George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." With these words in mind, all those concerned about the development of our city should reflect on how the historic talks between top officials and student leaders, at the height of the protests last October, became a missed opportunity.

Indeed, the outcome may have been different had officials delivered what was expected. During the talks, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor told leaders of the Federation of Students that the government would submit a report to the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office to reflect the public sentiment since the protests began. The government would also consider setting up a multiparty platform for talks on constitutional development beyond 2017.

In times of uncertainty, many Hongkongers look for heroes and have condoned the misjudgments made by the students during that momentous period in the city's history

However, Professor Joseph Chan Cho-wai, a political scientist and one of the middlemen involved in bringing the two sides together, said that during preparatory meetings, officials were positive about their suggestion the platform should also cover methods for electing the chief executive in 2017.

READ MORE: You will face justice: Hong Kong leader CY Leung's stark message on illegal protests a year after Occupy Central

Chan said Lam "backtracked a bit" during the talks. He and Gloria Chang Wan-ki, another intermediary, regretted that students had not pressed Lam for more details. Worse, student leaders failed to adhere to a prior understanding of giving a "mixed response" to the proposals, that is, not rejecting them outright while maintaining they would not fully meet their expectations. Instead, they lashed out at the government when they spoke to protesters that night. Some criticised officials for "playing tricks" and "fudging the issue", effectively burning their bridges. No further dialogue was held.

"What if?" is a favourite question of historians. What if students had reacted less militantly or stuck to the "mixed response"? What if there had been further dialogue? While it is unlikely that Beijing would have made substantial concessions on how to elect the chief executive by "one man, one vote" in 2017, there was a chance for students and pro-democracy groups to fight for a more democratic blueprint on the basis of the government's proposals. Even if Beijing had still rejected all room for amendments, a positive response by students to Lam's olive branch could have avoided playing into the hands of hardliners in the central and Hong Kong governments.

In times of uncertainty, many Hongkongers look for heroes and have condoned the misjudgments made by the students during that momentous period in the city's history.

History will remember the efforts of Chan, Chang and others who came forward. The role of University of Hong Kong vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson, who joined Lam and the middlemen for a meeting at his residence on October 16, should also not be forgotten. That meeting helped pave the way for the talks five days later.

Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, lamented: "That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach."

Huxley will be proved right if we do not bother to learn from the lessons of our history.

Gary Cheung is the Post's political editor