Illustration: Craig Stephens
Clifton R. Emery
Clifton R. Emery

Protesters and police are descending into totalitarianism. Hong Kong needs an Athenian moment to save itself

  • Police and the protesters appear trapped, unable to negotiate and pushing each other to greater extremes
  • To protect its freedoms, Hong Kong’s individual communities and institutions should put issues affecting them to a vote – and the majority should not be held hostage by the few

The protesters poured out of the front gate of the university. As soon as they entered the street they were descended upon by riot police in full gear surrounding them on three sides. The students engaged the riot police with sticks, and the police shot choking amounts of tear gas and used their shields and batons to beat the protesters. It was 1994 in Seoul, and I was watching the tail end of the South Korean democracy movement engage what was formerly an instrument of the dictatorship.

Much of what is happening in Hong Kong bears similarities to what I saw then, but there are striking differences too.

I spent Thursday and Friday talking intensively with the protesters behind the barricades at the University of Hong Kong. My goal was to learn from them, and to try to reduce the probability of serious injury or death. Most of the protesters I spoke with are idealists, all of them espouse democratic goals and values. Most of them also believe that the violence they use is in self-defence.

Hong Kong is facing a terrible crisis. It may be the case that neither side understands Talcott Parsons’ problem of order. Every time the police escalate in violence, or enforce decisions that further restrict freedoms and representative government, the government loses a little more legitimacy. And less legitimacy means more disorder, requiring more use of force. Each time the movement escalates in violence, it too loses a little more legitimacy, resulting in greater isolation and potential resort to violent tactics. The result when neither side understands this is, according to both Parsons and Thomas Hobbes, that life for all will be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

This escalation cycle of violence could create a “totalitarian mirror”. Without realising or intending it, institutions can easily come to resemble each other. What if it turns out that the greatest threat to democracy and individual liberties is not people who say they want more freedom, or people who say they want more efficiency, but people who are willing to pick up a gun to make other people do what they want?

It seems to me that at present the Hong Kong special administrative region government has no ability to negotiate independently of Beijing. Members of the administration cannot criticise the police in the slightest, much less accept the highly justified demand for an independent inquiry. This is abnormal.

If my understanding is correct, all of Hong Kong is held hostage by the actions of the police force. It may be that even the police are held hostage to the actions of a few within the force.

Likewise, if I understand the decision-making process of the movement correctly, they cannot end the occupation of the universities and resume classes without the consent of every member of the movement, at least within the university in question. The whole is held hostage by the goals of a few, letting all of Hong Kong’s economy burn.

The whole is being held hostage by the goals of a few, letting all of Hong Kong’s economy burn

In profoundly different ways, each of these decision-making processes are fundamentally undemocratic. This is the totalitarian mirror. While we are distracted by the tit-for-tat, we fail to notice converging isomorphism that is stifling freedom.

I do not know what members of the police think, but the protesters rightly understand the university as a necessary bastion of free speech. I fear, however, that some of them may fail to understand that this bastion is not one of bricks and mortar, but of norms that permit the free exchange of ideas and of a vast and vibrant community that deeply believes in those norms.

Protesters barricade themselves inside the Chinese University of Hong Kong campus in Sha Tin on November 14, using bricks and other materials. Photo: Sam Tsang

Violence creates a climate of fear that may undermine those norms in the direction of a totalitarian silence. And the university will be dead when the norms of civil dissent are defunct and the community that supports them is absent. Do not mistake me, the universities of Hong Kong are not dead. But they are in peril.

As an American, the protesters denunciations of “tyranny” speaks to my soul. We are indeed created morally equal, with certain inalienable rights that include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I love Hong Kong, and cherish the goal of a bright and democratic future for all of us who live here. Democracy here should not be controversial. It is written into the Basic Law. How can we go forward?

The mere presence of the police on campus now would be toxic to the civil and academic freedoms we require. They are trusted by almost no one on campus. At the same time, collective decision-making that can be vetoed by the few may undermine the very democratic norms and goals the movement professes.

In Hong Kong today, we cannot change what the chief executive or the Legislative Council are doing. But every institution in Hong Kong can reflect on the fact that, as things stand, undemocratic decision-making lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the movement and probably most of the population.

Make Hong Kong a democracy, if you can hear the angry people sing

What we can offer is to foster democratic decision-making right where we are. What I propose is an Athenian moment. In an age of online engagement, we should be able to put major decisions affecting the community or institution in question to a direct vote. Major decisions affecting university communities, neighbourhoods, religious bodies, unions, NGOs and political parties should be made on the basis of one person, one vote by members of the community in question. The outcome of majority votes should be respected and carried out by institutional and community leaders with care to respect the inalienable rights of the minority.

I believe that this is the only way to change course in a direction that will empower us all. And as we value our freedoms and are willing to lay down our lives in their defence, we agree to abide by the outcome of the vote.

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, I believe that legitimate power can now only be obtained through decision-making of the people, by the people, for the people. Direct voting regarding institutional decision-making could build trust, solidarity and democratic norms for the future. We cannot return to business as usual. Daily, intensive, respectful dialogue in a multitude of small but diverse groups about Hong Kong’s future is a must.

Clifton R. Emery is an associate professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong. His areas of interest are the links between totalitarian control and violence at all levels of society, from the family to the state