Members of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union stage a march in support of small-class education in 2010. Photo: SCMP
Then & Now
by Jason Wordie
Then & Now
by Jason Wordie

Hong Kong civil society is in retreat, from protest organiser to the biggest teachers’ union – does it matter?

  • Civil society groups big and small serve as sounding boards for those in power in the absence of representative government, but only if they want to listen
  • Seeing the city’s future political direction, many of these groups that sought to make society better have dissolved. Only time will tell if they’ll be missed

From its mid-19th century urban beginnings, until very recently, Hong Kong enjoyed a thriving civil society. From temple committees and guilds to mutual-aid associations and cultural groups, all helped to create and sustain a vibrant environment that offered something for everyone.

These were also useful diagnostic tools; in the absence of representative government, monitoring of civil society activities enabled successive administrations to gauge what the public actually thought about various issues, respond accordingly, and so prevent potentially tragic policy missteps. But this vital information-gathering mechanism only works when those in ultimate power are confident enough to accommodate sometimes-raucous voices that they need to hear, but don’t particularly want to listen to.

Stopping one’s ears to unwelcome news – or jailing the courier – never makes hard-to-take, critically important messages go away for long.

Recent months have witnessed the unravelling of civil society groups across Hong Kong. Organisations with tens of thousands of members – such as the Professional Teachers’ Union and Civil Human Rights Front – on down to smaller professional groups, have decided that, in the present febrile circumstances, discretion is the better part of valour.
Anti-government protestors on a New Year’s Day march organised by the Civil Human Rights Front in Hennessy Road, Causeway Bay, on January 1,2020. Photo: Nora Tam

From around 2003 – when the first resistance against Article 23 legislation resulted in the process being shelved – to around 2014, when it became obvious which way Hong Kong’s future was inexorably headed, numerous civil society organisations mushroomed and enjoyed an intense, productive flowering.

Agendas ranged from heritage and environmental protection, and enhanced rights for ethnic minorities and migrant workers, to LGBT activism, political reform, poverty alleviation – the list continues. And all because the public cared enough to step in to try to make their own corner of society better for everyone, when officialdom appeared unresponsive.

Tunnels at Shing Mun Redoubt, part of defensive lines against the invasion of Hong Kong built before the second world war. Amateur conservationists worked for years to preserve them, but have melted away.
As larger civil society groups vaporise, smaller, quirkier bands have also called it a day. Over the past two decades, one personal bellwether for the existence of these groups has been the conservation attempts – of sorts – undertaken by amateur heritage enthusiasts around the wartime tunnels and bunkers above Shing Mun. These people – elsewhere – are labelled “anoraks”: petty-detail obsessives who meticulously list obscure train engines, or the serial numbers on low-flying aircraft; new MTR lines or bus routes generally smoke them out for a few hours.

As government dithered over comprehensive heritage conservation proposals for Shing Mun, these groups simply sidestepped the bureaucrats and, from 2003, began their own conservation work, and overgrown, heavily eroded structures were slowly excavated. Amateur attempts at interpretative signage and protection guidelines were stuck up; invariably ripped down by the various government departments, these posters were quickly replaced.

Without doubt, these well-meaning enthusiasts harmed the place they tried to help, despite their good intentions. How much archaeological significance was carelessly shovelled down the hillsides during “clean-up” operations? We will never know.

From 2015-16, these activities gradually ceased, as civil society steadily shrivelled, and the tunnels slowly silted up again. Political squabbling has caused more collateral damage, as the former battlefield became a new conflict zone, brawled over by the ignorant on all sides.

Traces of that recently criminalised “slogan that dares not speak its name”, spray painted on walls, then blotted out with paint, have further damaged the integrity of these historically important structures.

But, like so much else, does it matter any more? Only time will tell.

Japanese poet Basho’s haunting haiku – evocative of Shing Mun – starkly indicates where Hong Kong civil society’s vain, valiant efforts seem headed:

The summer grasses.

All that remains,

Of the warrior’s dream