Cliff Buddle
SCMP Columnist
Cliff Buddle
Cliff Buddle

Hong Kong’s not dead – yet. But Carrie Lam and her cabinet must act

  • If Hong Kong is to survive this ordeal, the protesters must avoid provocative acts that make crackdowns more likely
  • The SAR government is most responsible for the escalation, though, through its misguided bill and recent inaction

The death of Hong Kong has been forecast many times, but the people of this vibrant and spirited city have always proved the doubters wrong. In recent weeks, however, even the most optimistic have started to fear Hong Kong is in terminal decline. So many qualities which make the city special have been undermined.

Protests are daily occurrences. Violent clashes with police have become the norm. The legislature has been ransacked, police headquarters pelted with eggs and Beijing’s liaison office daubed with graffiti. Most disturbing of all was the brutal, organised attack by stick-wielding assailants on protesters and passengers at Yuen Long MTR station last weekend, leaving 45 injured. This is not the Hong Kong we know.
The impact of these events, which began with peaceful mass protests against the government’s misconceived plans for an extradition bill last month, has been dramatic. Hong Kong’s long-held reputation for the maintenance of law and order has been shattered. Its status as one of the world’s safest cities has, at least temporarily, been lost. Tolerance is in short supply as the divisions in society deepen.

Meanwhile, the government, traditionally viewed as efficient and pragmatic, appears to have no answers. It is fiddling while Rome burns.

There is, however, still time for Hong Kong to show its characteristic survival instincts. With another potentially explosive protest planned for Yuen Long on Saturday, there is a need for all parties to reflect on how they should proceed.
The protesters are smart and well-organised. They may lack leaders, but they are well-prepared. Their flexible tactics have enabled them, at times, to outflank the police. Peaceful demonstrations attended by hundreds of thousands have often ended in more extreme action by a minority. One unusual feature has been that the majority have lent their support to such actions. They feel the same frustrations as the young activists on the front line.

But while the protesters have proved tactically adept, the same cannot be said of their strategy. Their demands have, so far, not been met. How are they to make the best use of the support they receive from the community? How is a leaderless movement to take its campaign forward in a way that will bring tangible, lasting results?

A few hooligans are blackening the name of an admirable mass movement

The desecration of Beijing’s liaison office, including the national emblem, has predictably incurred the wrath of the central government. No doubt, those responsible intended it to do so. This is not helpful at a time when Beijing is considering its own response. Such actions play into the hands of China’s hardliners and can only make a crackdown of some kind more likely. The voices of moderation will struggle to be heard when national sensitivities are stirred. But it must be understood that the damaging of national symbols are not a serious challenge to China’s sovereignty. People are just venting their anger.

The protesters are fighting for Hong Kong’s separate identity and core values. Those are admirable causes. And it is easy to understand why some feel peaceful protests do not work, because the government has brushed aside even the largest of such demonstrations. But to retain support from the community, the protesters must honour those values. Violence is not one of them. And freedom of expression means tolerating views you do not agree with.

It is not only the protesters who need to reflect. The police have been the target of public anger. They are stretched by the protests and morale is low. It is not their fault they have been thrust into the combat zone by the government’s failure to find a political solution.
Sometimes, the police have appeared to overreact. Other times they have stood by and watched as the law is flagrantly broken. Why were protesters allowed to raid Legco and escape without arrests? Attacks on police headquarters and the liaison office were also allowed to take place.

No doubt, the force faces manpower issues. And a desire to avoid bloodshed is, of course, welcome. But the idea that unlawful behaviour can be tolerated has been allowed to take hold. And that is dangerous. It leads people to take the law into their own hands. The outrageous attack in Yuen Long is an example of where that might end.

Enough is enough: this cycle of violence has to come to an end

Many questions about the actions of the police need to be answered. Its alarming failure to prevent the Yuen Long attack must be fully explored. It is for the good of the force that failings are identified and lessons learned. That is why an independent inquiry is needed.

But the ultimate responsibility for the problems Hong Kong is facing lies with the city’s government. Having caused the conflict with its plans for an extradition law, which would have seen Hong Kong people sent to mainland China for trial, it is now standing idly by as the violence escalates.

Some suggest it does not know what to do. Others see a sinister plan to allow the troubles to worsen so a crackdown can be justified. Perhaps officials think they can just wait it out, as they did with the Occupy protests in 2014.

Action is needed. There must be a circuit-breaker that creates a chance of reconciliation. It would not be difficult to meet at least some of the protesters’ demands. Withdraw the extradition bill – just say that word! Announce an inquiry into recent events. Make it clear that peaceful protesters will not be punished. A resignation or two might be needed.

Even then, it is not guaranteed the protests will end. But it would show the government is listening and, perhaps, win over the moderate protesters who form the majority.

Hong Kong gains nothing from the shattering of its peace

The central government should avoid a predictable response – blaming foreign forces and launching some sort of crackdown. The prospect of the army being used has been exaggerated. But Beijing should avoid tightening its grip in other ways. It is that process of tightening in recent years which has fuelled the protests.

Change of a different kind is required. Hong Kong needs a political system which works for all, not just the privileged few. The young must be given a role in helping shape the future. They have much to contribute.

Hong Kong is not dead – not yet. But it needs all concerned to think carefully about how best to reverse this damaging decline and lift our city from its current gloom. Violence breeds violence and it must stop. As for the government, it needs to act. In line with the protest theme song, it is time for officials to show that they do hear the people sing.

Cliff Buddle is the Post’s editor of special projects