Hong Kong should get its act together

Hong Kong should get its act together

History rarely moves in ways simple enough to be wholly comprehensible when the events take place. What observers and commentators make of what is happening in Hong Kong is not, in any complete sense, what history will eventually make of it.

So the question becomes what is to be concluded about Hong Kong right now, in the unfocused, semi-darkness of the moment?

Some observers view the struggle of the "pro-democracy" street protesters as the classic diorama of good guys against bad guys. This is obviously simplistic but emotionally appealing. Others view the recent turmoil as the breakdown of law and order and the erosion of a decent respect for legitimate authority. This is factually correct, but is emotionally unappealing. And it is beside the point, which is: Where do the central government and Hong Kong go from here and in what civilised manner do they do it?

After former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher's government accepted that it had to return Hong Kong to China, then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping imagined a Hong Kong embraced without rancour or fuss into the overall Chinese family, even if it meant that the spoiled prodigy would incessantly demand special treats. Which it has more or less.

Were Deng alive today, would he take the rod to the spoiled child? Or shake his head knowingly, the uncle of eternal patience? So far, at least, the central government has mostly left the official reaction to the local Hong Kong authorities, even as students, among others, continue to block in the streets, freeze traffic, disrupt the mature economy and disrupt domestic tranquillity. Would such activity in public space be so patiently and lengthily permitted in Los Angeles where I live?

The Chinese central authorities are understandably perturbed by the protest against its judgment on the rules for the 2017 election for the city's chief executive, in which everyone in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be able to vote but not everyone will be able to run. Making the rules is within the central government's sovereign power.

Pushing negotiations with the protesters down to the working level of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region itself is tactically correct and within the markers of the "One Country, Two Systems" policy, the governing code endorsed by Deng.

But there is an operational problem: the Hong Kong government appears to have lost some moral - or at least persuasive - authority. Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying, who took office in 2012 and early on made some good, tough policy decisions, has inadvertently ratcheted up the tension. The central authorities might want to note that the nominating process through which Leung assumed the highest office in Hong Kong will carry through to 2017 despite the welcome opening to universal suffrage.

The danger with that, however, is that Hong Kong, and the central authorities may never gain the kind of inspired leadership both deserve and the tricky "One Country, Two Systems" policy requires. Perhaps the process of selection should get a second look. A plenary session of review, perhaps a community at large process taking even many months, hosted at one of the universities in Hong Kong, would hardly seem more of a waste of time, energy and spirit than these stupid and dispiriting street circuses.

To this end, why not ask Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's first chief executive (1997-2005), to chair the review? With his timely and obviously good-willed calls for calm and reason, Tung, who, crucially, retains the central authorities' trust, offers Hong Kong residents very good reason indeed to listen to him with special attentiveness.

There may be some room for navigation between what the central authorities have proposed and what some Hong Kong residents prefer. Surely the time for a higher level of calm and consensus is ripe. The territory and the motherland should be working together to ameliorate the social and economic pressures threatening to pull Hong Kong down far more dramatically and dangerously than today's governance dispute. Hong Kong should get its act together and cut down on the self-flagellations.

The author is a scholar, specialising in Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and the author of In the Middle of China's Future.


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