How Hong Kong should be

Society & Culture

Being a centrist in Hong Kong can be a lonely proposition, as our writer well knows. “Upholding and respecting the liberal political cultures and values of the city would benefit Beijing and Hong Kong alike,” Brian Wong writes, “though it pains me to see the futility of this pitch playing out before my eyes.”

 

In May 2019, the Hong Kong government attempted to mount an extradition bill that, if passed, would have enabled mainland Chinese authorities to send fugitives in Hong Kong to stand trial in mainland China. It’s a bill that, in a different context, may have seemed reasonable — many countries have extradition agreements with their neighbors and allies — but in Hong Kong, significant numbers of people took to the streets to protest what they deemed an encroachment on the city’s civil and political liberties. The ensuing protests were also an articulation of pent-up frustrations accumulated over the years with regards to the city’s opaque and calcified governance, skyrocketing property prices, and lack of progress on the issue of universal suffrage.

For the subsequent year, my home — a place where I had grown up and know well, from its narrow sidewalks to its saltine harbor breeze, from its air-conditioned office buildings to its overflowing wet markets — turned into a battlefield. Embittered policemen fought radical protesters, those who seek government accountability fought supporters of Central Authority, citizens of different “colors” — yellow, blue, red, green, etc., signifying their beliefs — fought each other. And now the city itself is a front in a larger battle — a New Cold War fought between two superpowers that seem equally callous to the demands of its people.

Meanwhile, there are those like me — Hongkongers who want a peaceful future but find ourselves unable to convince anyone that the path to get there requires a lot more patience and a lot more work.

Last month, in response to what it perceived as signs of foreign interference and sedition, Beijing proposed a National Security Act that would outlaw activities that jeopardized Chinese “national security”; it passed last Thursday. In the meantime, U.S. president Donald Trump has moved to revoke Hong Kong’s “special status.” The city today stands at the brink of war, but — perhaps unlike others enamored by romantic narratives — I do not view Hong Kong as a battle between “foreign colonists” and “Chinese patriots,” or between “freedom” and “authoritarianism.” I see my home city as merely the sacrificial lamb in a power play in which it could never afford to participate in, in which it has no say and no stake.

Much as contemporary America is divided to the point that it can seem to be two separate countries, Hong Kong today is in actuality two cities, with equally stark divisions. One city is inhabited by zealous pro-Chinese bureaucrats, politicians, business leaders, and ordinary citizens who cannot wait to see the city fully integrated within the mainland, with a restoration of the “peace and stability” that they fetishize. The other city is inhabited by those who are disillusioned with what they’ve become post-handover; many of these individuals are upset at the city’s stagnant political reforms, intransigent bureaucratic inertia, slipping international competitiveness, and deeply out-of-touch governing cabinet.

Augustine spoke of two cities — Rome, the city of this world, and Jerusalem, the city of Heaven — in his moral writings. In Hong Kong, both camps envision themselves as actualizing the eternal city, through the elimination of the temporal city.

Those who oppose the government increasingly find resonance with broader anti-China narratives, which paint Beijing as a mortal enemy to the city’s freedoms. On the other hand, those who defend the political establishment have been increasingly convinced that restoring stability and order to Hong Kong requires eliminating, at any and all costs, the Pan-Democratic camp.

A dear friend once said to me, “You Hong Kong centrists are caught between a rock and a hard place.”

 

I see my home city as merely the sacrificial lamb in a power play in which it could never afford to participate in, in which it has no say and no stake.

 

Centrism has never been easy in Hong Kong. The modus operandi championed by many centrists — of “dialogue” and “discussion” — has apparently been debunked by the events of the past 20 years. Setting aside the ignominious, scandalous track records of some of its foremost advocates, the path’s main “mode of advocacy” seemingly lacks credibility.

Indeed, from the pro-democracy, anti-Establishment point of view, decades of dialogue with Central Authorities has led to basically nonexistent progress on the front of political reform and universal suffrage (context: Hong Kong’s Chief Executive is not, currently, elected by the people, but via an electoral committee of 1,200 selected individuals). Concurrently, demands for greater transparency in governance and cabinet formation have been met with cold shrugs and shut doors. These setbacks — coupled with preconceptions and judgments about mainland China informed by the city’s Westernized culture — have inculcated a deeply rooted distrust toward those who advocate dialogue and conversations with Beijing to figure out a mutually advantageous political proposal.

On the other hand, the Establishment — and its supporters — has become increasingly fatigued with the prospects of engaging in “dialogue” with forces who are increasingly hostile against them. To Beijing, its actions over the past decade in Hong Kong have been concessionary and conciliatory — it endorsed the universal suffrage package produced by protracted conversations between itself and the Pan-Democrats; it “tolerated” Hongkongers’ resistance toward the failed attempt to launch Moral and National Education in Hong Kong high schools; it did not pursue particularly stern actions in the aftermath of the 2014 Umbrella Movement; and in 2017, Beijing saw hope in Carrie Lam, a candidate whom many in the Establishment (Hong Kong and Beijing alike) viewed as a moderate whose excellent record as a civil servant seemed to render her the ideal figure for reconciling the different factions. The events in 2019 indubitably wore Beijing’s patience thin, and significantly dented the credibility, in the eyes of mainland bureaucrats, of the centrist pitch.

Social media echo chambers have not helped, either. As the legal scholar Cass Sunstein aptly predicted in his 1999 article on polarization, those who deviate from the dominant value criteria and norms are policed, chastised, oven ostracized for their deviance.

The escalating U.S.-China Cold War, the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, and the imminent American general election are all factors that render any form of capitulation nigh-impossible. China views concessions on Hong Kong as spurring further foreign-backed insurgency and disruptions to civil and political order, whereas the U.S. is motivated by political and discursive reasons to continually “support” Hong Kong as a bastion of its interests in the East.

If centrism hadn’t already died before 2019, it surely seems to be “dead for real” now; indeed, more dead than the shelved and withdrawn extradition bill. In this Greek tragedy, Hong Kong’s hamartia — fatal flaw — is perhaps the intractable clash of values playing out on its streets, in its legislative chambers, in its highest echelons of power.  

But none of this means we should give up.

If you’d have asked the 15-year-old me what I thought I’d be doing, where I’d be politically, seven years later in 2020, I would never have guessed. Growing up in a comfortable middle-class family, educated in an English-speaking international school, politics for me in 2013 seemed distant, even distractionary.

I’m now a 22-year-old writer and aspiring scholar who knows the fight for Hong Kong’s future may be a life’s work.

I like to think of myself as a reformist — a voice calling for accountability, institutional checks, and fixes within the system, no matter how broken or dilapidated it seems — as opposed to a revolutionary. But as extremist ideas surge and bellicose rhetoric is mainstreamed, I’m increasingly considered, alternately, as a “traitor,” a “sell-out,” an “apologist for China,” and a “brainwashed Western liberal.” One may note that these labels emerge from both ends of the spectrum, collectively accounting for a majority of Hong Kong’s political landscape. Those who are less vociferous tend to call me a “centrist,” even though I don’t imagine my political positions and views as occupying the “center,” at least not in the Blairite or Clintonian sense.

“So what do you really stand for, beyond platitudes?” some have asked.

 

Hong Kong must be a free city for all, not just the few — regardless of sexual orientation, race, gender, class, or political beliefs.

 

I believe in a Hong Kong that possesses responsive, accountable governance, where civil servants and leading bureaucrats alike would respond to our citizens and engage them in consultative governance; where our legislators — elected with the mandate of the people to fill positions at both city and district levels — could effectively represent the voices of those who lack political power and privilege, while also getting their hands effectively on the city’s governance and management. I believe in a Hong Kong where supposed political leaders lead, not follow; where those who govern could govern with Hongkongers’ mass interests in mind, as opposed to what best services their own political careers. I believe in a Hong Kong that arrives at universal suffrage eventually, albeit in a process that necessarily will take time and effort — gargantuan, even Herculean efforts, as we speak — to realize. An ideal — or minimally decent — Hong Kong should be one where police brutality is investigated, vigilante justice does not proliferate, questions over the city’s skyrocketing housing prices, mental health issues, youth unemployment and underemployment are addressed urgently and comprehensively. Hong Kong should be governed by folks who listen to the people, not just to Beijing.

Yet let’s not set aside the Chinese question. To run away from the elephant in the room and reduce all of Hong Kong’s woes to “domestic issues” is akin to — to borrow a Chinese idiom — covering one’s ears while stealing a bell: pure self-deception. Establishment hawks enjoy overstating the number and strength of the pro-secession camp, yet there is indisputably a significant and increasingly prominent minority of voices who seek Hong Kong independence. Yet independence is neither feasible nor desirable for the city, and calls for independence only inflame China’s sensitivities. Hong Kong remains, and should remain, a part of China. Being a part of China implies that the city ought to accept crucial baselines that equally bind 1.4 billion other individuals residing in China. How these baselines are upheld, in what forms they are enacted, and in what ways they should be implemented without compromising Hong Kong’s core values and unique business climate — these are questions that Hongkongers and mainland Chinese officials alike must reconsider. Upholding and respecting the liberal political cultures and values of the city would benefit Beijing and Hong Kong alike, though it pains me to see the futility of this pitch playing out before my eyes.

Finally, Hong Kong must be a free city for all, not just the few — regardless of sexual orientation, race, gender, class, or political beliefs. Values such as freedom of speech and freedom of thought are what underpin our hugely successful and largely vibrant financial and legal sectors. Queer individuals should not find their basic civil liberties undermined in the name of religious freedom. Those in power — whether it be a majority or a political entity — should never have the right to strip away anyone’s rights to be heard, provided that the speech is within bounds. Many of my peers are deeply frustrated by the exclusionary institutions that define Hong Kong’s governance, which take seriously neither what they say nor their right to say it. Dissent is a core pillar of accountable governance, and Hong Kong — as a distinct political system from the mainland’s — should be the ideal testing ground for controlled, moderated liberalization, acting as an exemplar for targeted, planned political reforms in the mainland.

Centrism in Hong Kong has never been about flipping from one end of the spectrum to the other for the sake of political gains. It should also not be a position adopted frivolously, or to court momentary support in the city’s legislature. To run as a centrist candidate in the city’s deeply polarized elections is neither viable nor conducive toward the position’s upkeep in the city — strategic voting means that centrist candidates rarely receive the votes required to enter the Legislative Council. Centrism with integrity should instead look into identifying room for convergence and alignment between Beijing’s and Hongkongers’ interests and incentives — Beijing and Hong Kong should not, under ideal circumstances, treat each other as enemies, especially of an existential sort.

Why would anyone want this compromise? Why should any party welcome this uneasy modus vivendi, when total war seems…simpler?

The answer is simple: It’s because Hong Kong can’t afford war. It has everything to lose and little to gain from the U.S. revoking its special status. Hong Kong, as a hub of trade and financial consolidation, has the most to lose from any potential decoupling between the U.S. and China.

For Beijing, an inept and recalcitrant Hong Kong government — plausibly worse than the governing officials in the mainland — would only serve as an embarrassment and distraction as it braces itself for the imminent Cold War. To the West, a politically unstable and polarized Hong Kong — driven apart by vitriolic unrest and violence — does not serve its business interests. For Hongkongers — a vast majority of whom are neither ideologically committed to philosophical notions of democracy nor inherently “revolutionaries” — what is needed is sound, responsive, and transparent governance that is for the people and by the people. Democratic reforms must and will come, but cannot occur at a pace or in a way that rocks Beijing’s boat. This may well mean patience; this may well mean setbacks in the short-term. But Rome — indeed, Augustine’s Rome — was not built in one day.

One more thing: I had a serious think the other day about why I cared so much.

And after some soul-searching, the answer is, I suppose, I care because this city has raised me. I care because I think this city of over seven million people — lovably resilient, gratingly perseverant — is a city that deserves better, that should be better, that we can make better. I care because I do not think I agree with the seemingly dominant, seemingly irresistible voices proliferating in Hong Kong politics.

Politics is never about preserving the status quo, but fighting for the right and the just, in light of what is feasible. Yet what is feasible in Hong Kong is also not static — it is up to us, the lonely and battered “centrists,” to make the difference.

Also by Brian Wong:

‘One country, two systems’ isn’t dead. But Hong Kong needs serious overhaul and reform