Written by Gerrit van der Wees.
I just finished watching a powerful video of a street singer standing on a street corner in Hong Kong, singing pro-democracy songs. Some policemen moved in to stop him from singing, but despite the menacing position of the police, the presence of a surrounding crowd prevented them from acting. In the end, the singer wins, and the police lose.
This 32 minute video is emblematic of the overall situation in Hong Kong: the singer and crowd are representative of the people of Hong Kong, who yearn for a free and open society unrestrained by the strictures and lack of freedoms that are increasingly filtering in from across the border with China.
The policemen menacing the singer reflect the rigid and uncompromising attitude of the government of Carrie Lam, which has failed to even take initial steps to resolve the situation. Letting things fester will only aggravate tensions and prevent a real solution.
If Ms Lam and her government were doing their job, they would find creative and constructive ways to end the protests by removing at least some of the contributing irritants. They are not doing so, and thus failing in their function as a semi-representative government.
Of course we all know the reasons why Hong Kong’s government has acted this way: Beijing is looking over their shoulders, pulling the strings, infiltrating the Hong Kong police, or worse: letting the Hong Kong police do its dirty work unchecked. Beijing is avoiding a hard crackdown a-la Tiananmen, but hopes to regain control through less obvious means such as subversion and infiltration.
As leader of the government, Ms Lam needs to have the moral courage to take the first step. If she were serious in her intent to resolve the situation, she would have examined the protesters’ five demands and found where there might be an opening to maneuver towards a compromise.
The five demands were:
- Full withdrawal of the extradition bill. This was actually done through the formal decision of the Legislative Congress on 23 October this year.
- A commission of inquiry into the alleged police brutality. This is probably one of the most important issues: over the past months, evidence of the police’s unnecessarily aggressive behavior and actual brutality has been piling up. Ms Lam needs to take strong measures to restrain the police and ensure they protect the citizens instead of harming them.
Even the pro-establishment base of the Hong Kong government supports such an independent investigation into excessive police behavior and opinion polls show at least 80% of the overall population feel this is much-needed. There is also deep concern about the treatment of protesters in prison – particularly the notorious and secretive San Uk Ling detention centre, situated near the border with China.
- Retracting the classification of protesters as “rioters.” A large majority of protesters were peaceful; their actions were in support of freedom and democracy in Hong Kong. Labeling them as “rioters” is totally unjustified and inflammatory.
- Amnesty for arrested protesters. Again, the large majority of protesters were peacefully exercising their rights under the Basic Law. In the later stages of the protests, there were some who resorted to violence in response to the aggressive tactics by the police. They should have their day in court, but should be assumed innocent until proven guilty.
- Dual universal suffrage, for both the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive. This is yet another issue where creative and constructive minds should sit around the table, and see how a structure can be devised to implement universal suffrage.
But instead of searching for creative solutions, Ms Lam has been digging in and stonewalling. In a press conference on 11 November 2019, she referred to the protesters as “enemy of the people”, and said it was “wishful thinking” to believe the government would yield to the protesters’ demands.
Hong Kong and its people have a proud history as a unique place where business, academia, and freedom of expression mash.
By continuing to crack down on the protesters, and by refusing to move towards a peaceful resolution, Ms Lam is destroying an opportunity for Hong Kong to become – in the words of US vice-president Pence on 22 October – “a living example of what can happen when China embraces liberty.”
By failing to take the high road, Ms Lam is aiding and abetting China’s efforts to turn Hong Kong into yet another example – like Tibet and East Turkestan – of the expansion of Beijing’s repressive and authoritarian rule.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016 he served as the editor of Taiwan Communiqué. Since 2012 he has taught the history of Taiwan at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.