Political conflicts have left our real problems on the back burner
Hong Kong’s outgoing leader may have succeeded in quelling dissent on one level, yet the issues that matter most – social and economic – have not been dealt with
When Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying leaves office next week, he will leave behind a highly contentious legacy that will be the subject of debate for years to come. But while his enemies and critics will never admit it, there is no doubt that he has scored two major victories: against the Occupy movement and localist-inspired separatism. Ultimately, they count the most in the eye of the central government.
Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Leung did not so much as defeat the two movements than that they self-imploded through poor leadership, lack of organisation and constant infighting. You can draw a straight line from the Occupy protests to localist separatism. Clear-sighted observers had always known that the Occupy movement would get nowhere, having been led by naive and incompetent scholars, churchmen and youngsters. Leung and his bosses in Beijing knew no massive state violence in the mould of Tiananmen was necessary or even desirable. All they needed was to wait it out. Sure enough, it lasted just 79 days.
The outcomes were also predictable: political disillusionment for most, self-styled radicalisation by a few. Pan-democrats like to blame Leung for creating radical localism. That’s their backhanded acknowledgement of his success against the Occupy protests. Having exhausted the sloganeering on universal suffrage when pan-democratic lawmakers voted down the last electoral reform package in 2014, the worst of the city’s political malcontents switched to the notion of sovereignty, hence their ever changing, usually incoherent, sometimes contradictory demands for independence, full autonomy and/or city-state status over different time frames, up to 2047 and thereafter. The problem is that the localist radicals can’t even agree among themselves when and in what form Hong Kong’s separation from the rest of China will take, let alone convincing others that it’s a viable political programme.
Having seen the Occupy movement self-destruct, we are now watching the localists self-implode. But Leung’s victories may yet be pyrrhic. Marxists like to point out that political conflicts are merely the surface problems caused by underlying socio-economic contradictions within a society. And they would be exactly right. Our legion of social problems – from extreme inequalities and lack of social mobility and opportunities to profound demographic changes, declining productivity and inability to innovate – are the real issues. Sadly, our leaders and our community as a whole don’t seem to be up to the challenge.