Between water cannons spraying blue dye and the acrid aftermath of Molotov cocktails, it is understandable that the most vulnerable in Hong Kong have been largely left out of public discourse on the protests.
While the mainstream media portrays the unrest as a battle between two camps – the pro-democracy movement and the ostensibly pro-stability establishment – those who have had to endure the aftermath of the destruction and violence wrought by all parties have been largely effaced from the narrative.
I was standing across from the Peninsula hotel last week under the blazing sun and beside me a team of harried-looking workers were trying their best to repair traffic lights in time for the evening rush hour. Later that day, I walked past an elderly rough sleeper whose wracking cough told his story – he had been caught in tear gas fired during a police-protester altercation.
That night, I visited a coffee shop that radical protesters had branded a “ blue” establishment, where the workers spoke of business declining since protesters took to naming and shaming restaurants for their political orientations.
The past six months have taken a heavy toll on Hong Kong’s most vulnerable. From creating biohazards on the fly and heightening the risk to and strain on street cleaners and repair workers, to the domino effect of the drastic decline in tourist numbers, the unrest has not only thrown under the bus the voiceless but also allowed political forces to use them selectively as scapegoats and battering rams in the ongoing blame game.
The government blames the protesters for disrupting the livelihoods of ordinary civilians; the protesters accuse the government of being recalcitrant and the primary cause of Hong Kong’s descent into anarchy. In the meantime, those who cannot pay, who may not vote and who are not media-savvy end up bearing immense physical and economic costs. So much for a brighter and better Hong Kong.
There is much that we ought to do. To begin with, spare a thought for the heavily underpaid, severely overworked people tasked with cleaning up the mess left behind after both large-scale rallies and small-scale confrontations.
I vividly recall images of protesters in the 2014 “umbrella movement” cleaning up the rubbish left on the streets. If members of the police force and protest movement alike could consider the consequences of their actions on innocent bystanders, perhaps we could minimise the extent to which we expose elderly workers to toxins.
The argument that these workers are paid well for the job is absurd – let’s not conflate the miserly wages they receive with the respect we ought to afford any human being, even if we leave the question of minimum wage for another day.
And perhaps we ought to take the recession seriously, instead of dismissing it as merely a necessary casualty of the political movement. Workers employed by “blue” or “yellow” shops or staff struggling in businesses threatened by the plummeting tourist numbers and drop in consumption are not responsible for their employers’ political or moral stances.
The economic costs of shop boycotts and encirclement campaigns do not affect the wealthiest and most privileged investors and business owners – rather, they are transferred to those who can neither speak out nor fight back against forces and decisions beyond their control.
Given our collective wealth as a society, perhaps the government ought to ramp up its current subsidies and offer employment and vocational retraining to workers who have been laid off.
Pedestrians and innocent civilians swept up in the violence deserve answers and amends made for the losses they have suffered. Many have been subjected to vigilante “justice” at the hands of extremist mobs with different political stances. Many more have inhaled tear gas or been injured in the flash-mob protests across the city.
These are living, breathing individuals who cannot be dismissed as mere collateral damage or the “inevitable cost” of politics. If politics is about people, we should be putting people first. The onus falls particularly on those tasked with upholding law and order – our government.
The best way to handle these costs is with a political solution that takes seriously all parties’ baselines and demands. There must be answers to the questions raised in the past months. An independent investigation is the only effective way to ensure that we judiciously meet our obligations towards innocent victims of the civil unrest.
Compromise – while politically unpalatable – is necessary. The movement should realise that violence, at the expense of Hong Kong’s economic prosperity and social integrity, is neither effective in persuading others nor justified.
Yet, the establishment must also answer the calls for reform and reflection from the many moderates who are sympathetic to some of the movement’s aims, despite having clear reservations about its violence and destructiveness. The administration ought to come to the moral conclusion that, while holding out for the movement to dissipate seems strategic, a waiting game only harms the city’s poorest.
It is all too tempting to romanticise violence or excuse everything in the name of upholding the law but the question remains – at what cost? If the cost of Hong Kong’s “better future” is borne by a small, silent and significantly harmed minority, then it is neither a future for all nor one that is truly better.
Brian Wong is an MPhil (political theory) candidate at Wolfson College, Oxford and current Rhodes Scholar-elect for Hong Kong in 2020
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Time to account for collateral damage caused by unrest