Opinion – Will conciliation be possible in Hong Kong?

The anti-extradition movement and its related violent protests in Hong Kong took a turn for the better on August 17 and 18, when protests remained largely peaceful without the police use of teargas.

On August 20, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that while complaints against the police are tackled by the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), the government welcomes the establishment of a platform to enhance dialogue and communications with various stakeholders.

At the same time, legislator Michael Tien said he heard Beijing set a deadline of October 1, the national day of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), for the Hong Kong government to settle the disputes with protestors.

Otherwise, any deterioration in the protests would necessitate stronger intervention from Beijing, including the possibility of sending the People’s Armed Police (PAP) into the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).

Clearly, the Hong Kong government is under pressure to come up with constructive solutions so that both the peaceful and radical factions of protestors would accept. This challenge is by no means easy unless the three sides – the government, peaceful protestors, and radical ones – can narrow their differences and reach consensus on several issues.

First, both peaceful and radical protestors insist that the government should formally “withdraw” the bill rather than saying that the bill is “dead.” There are at least two interpretations on why the Chief Executive did not use the word “withdrawal” in coping with the bill.

Firstly, she believes that “withdrawal” is the same as asserting that the bill is “dead.” Secondly, there were rumors that Beijing did and does not support formal “withdrawal” because the bill originally had a good intention of preventing the money-laundering activities of mainland business people and officials in Hong Kong.

A Hong Kong-based magazine on Chinese politics claimed that the extradition bill was supported by Beijing because of the fact that at least 300 mainlanders had laundered a huge amount of money in Hong Kong.

With the benefit of hindsight, when the extradition bill was initiated by the Hong Kong government in May and early June, none of the principal officials explained the real meaning of how the bill could plug the existing “loopholes,” except for Financial Secretary Paul Chan who once referred to the need for anti-money laundering activities.

In any case, due to the protestors’ insistence that the bill should be formally withdrawn, it would be necessary for the government to clarify the matter instead of giving answers that are deemed to be ambiguous.

Second, the government needs to clarify whether the platform as mentioned by the Chief Executive would be an independent committee on the entire Hong Kong disturbances in 2019, or whether it would be an independent commission of inquiry.

Carrie Lam appeared to rule out an independent commission of inquiry into the police handling of the protests and she harps on the same theme of having the IPCC to deal with public complaints against the police. It is doubtful whether her cautious and perhaps conservative position is accepted by the protestors, especially the radicals.

Ideally, an independent commission of inquiry should be set up to investigate the social, economic and political causes of the disturbances and make recommendations to the government. If the police reject an independent commission to look into their own behavior and performance, a compromise solution is for the commission, if it were set up, to receive public complaints against the police and to refer them back to IPCC for investigation.

Overall, the platform mentioned by Carrie Lam needs to hammer out the details and technicalities, including the possibility of whether such a platform may embrace the power to consider recommending partial amnesty to some, if not all, protestors who did violate the law. If not, protests would continue to exert pressure on the government.

Third, both peaceful and radical protestors demand that the government should reopen the discussions on universal suffrage. A problem of the Carrie Lam administration was and is to depoliticize HKSAR by adopting a delaying tactic on political reform.

Lam’s assumption of governing the HKSAR is to focus on livelihood issues while avoiding discussions on sensitive political issues – an approach indicative of her background as a career and senior civil servant who was loyal to the bureaucracy, including the police, without much political foresight and finesse.

If the government has to do more to win the hearts and minds of protestors, it would have to admit the need to kick-start the discussions on political reform by setting up an independent committee composed of politically neutral experts.

Without any gesture on political reform, the government adopts a politically stagnant position that runs the risk of providing the ammunition for protestors to continue their protests.

Even though any discussion on political reform necessitates the protestors and democrats to return to Beijing’s parameter for the selection of the Chief Executive – two to three candidates chosen by a nomination committee with at least half of its members’ supporting them and then election by all eligible voters and final approval from Beijing – this process would be unavoidable.

The crux of the matter is for an independent political reform committee to consider different options apart from this political parameter established by Beijing on August 31, 2014.

Fourth, Carrie Lam appears to be a weak Chief Executive whose decisions on crucial issues need the endorsement from Beijing.

Regardless of how long Carrie Lam continues to be the Chief Executive in light of the rumors that she had offered to resign but such offer was rejected by Beijing, her administration looks like a “lame duck” because Beijing appears to have a direct say on all the moves made by the HKSAR government in coping with the ongoing crisis.

Despite all the uncertainties surrounding the dynamics between the Hong Kong government, the peaceful and radical factions of protestors and the central government in Beijing, the scenario of any Tiananmen-style crackdown by either the PAP or the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would be very unlikely.

President Xi Jinping was reportedly favoring a political solution in Hong Kong without any bloodshed. US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said respectively on August 19 and 20 that China must avoid any Tiananmen-style crackdown of the protestors in Hong Kong.

The pressure is now exerted on the Hong Kong police to control and handle the protests in a relatively restrained and cautious manner. Unfortunately, the legitimacy of the police has been undermined to some extent by the Yuen Long terror on the night of July 21, when suspected triads attacked passengers and protestors in the Yuen Long Mass Transit Railway station without any checks and effective reactions from the police.

From an objective perspective, the Hong Kong police has become a political sandwich between the need to maintain social order and to respect the human rights of protestors, and between Beijing’s call for the need to “stop the chaos and control violence” on the one hand and the coincidental demands from both President Xi and President Trump to avoid any bloodshed parallel to the June 1989 Tiananmen incident.

From Beijing’s perspective, the US is using Hong Kong as a bargaining chip in the US-China trade negotiations. Beijing sees the US as interfering with the Hong Kong protests through various meetings with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leaders.

Beijing also believes that its hardline position, like the warning of Hong Kong protests as showing signs of a “color revolution” and the presence and exercise of the PAP in Shenzhen, did yield desirable outcomes in Hong Kong, namely a more hardline local policing tactic and the pressure on some protesters to moderate their strategy, especially after the publicly criticized occupy airport movement. Some radical protestors appear to hide “underground” after a series of arrests made by the Hong Kong police.

Yet, politics remain the art of the possible, as Bismarck remarked. The Hong Kong situation can suddenly deteriorate if all the stakeholders adopt a non-compromising position. 

As such, a breakthrough in the current political impasse depends on whether all sides are willing to make further concessions. The challenge will be the behavior of all stakeholders from now to October 1. The hallmark of Chinese politics is to maintain face or mianzi.

If protestors do not give face to the PRC on October 1, the PAP would perhaps be mobilized across the border to restore public order in Hong Kong. Yet, some radical protestors would not exclude the option of ignoring the question of face in Chinese politics, especially if the Hong Kong government sticks to a relatively rigid position without many concessions.

If these analyses are accurate, the triangular dynamics of and mutual concessions from the government, the peaceful protestors and radical ones remain the most important factor shaping the outcome of the ongoing political deadlock.