Reviews & Articles
週二的構想 | Imagining Tuesdays
at 11:34am on 21st September 2019
‘Free HK'' graffiti, MTR pedestrian overpass, Tsuen Wan, 20 August 2019 (Photo: John Batten)
(Please scroll down for English version)
by John Batten
On Tuesdays, every week, the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Mrs Carrie Lam, makes a statement. Despite it being a Tuesday, Mrs Lam’s appearance has the omnipotent look of a church warden at a Sunday service. Mrs Lam stands behind a lectern, makes a short speech, a homily, for us ‘out there’ watching on a television, a computer monitor, a smartphone or listening on the radio; but it’s just a flick of a switch to turn her off. As many do.
These appearances coincide with the weekly Executive Council meetings that she chairs. Since the anti-extradition protests began, Mrs Lam has increasingly looked isolated, lonely, inflexible, our Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in name only. The real decisions are made elsewhere, in the oft-cited, all-embracing but amorphous name of “Beijing”, but Beijing is many people and ideas. Beijing is factions, advisors, hardliners, moderates, conservatives, officials, military commanders, police, spies, diplomats, and cagey businessmen. Beijing is theories, tactics, procrastination, thought, commands, propaganda, advice, gossip, intrigue, decisions, innuendo, and directions. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Mrs Lam looks flummoxed at her press conferences. Shocked that she is in this position, a successful public servant who, I imagine would tell us, has rarely failed. Millions of people have rallied and marched on the streets over these summer months opposing her government. She would have checked if, perchance, the much-lower police estimates could in preference be believed. She is assured by her staff, that the one million, 2 million (+ 1), and 1.7 million people marching on the streets is accurate. There must have been an audible sigh in her office – surely. I imagine that she tries to comprehend the escalation of violence by police and protesters and the tear gas and rubber bullets to control who she perceives as out-of-control violent hordes. She probably reads the blunt, abusive graffiti sprayed on motorways expressing the protesters’ demands in a fully-compiled-internal-memo from the Highways Department. There is sympathy from her public-servant days towards her colleagues, the police. And, there is astonishment that other members of the public service, from all departments, including the Justice Department, have issued statements seemingly insubordinate to the government and its position on the anti-extradition protests. Despite what she might know and has been told, Mrs Lam’s statements at these press conferences are predictable and curt: the system will deal with complaints against the police and the violence must end before there is any consideration of the protesters’ demands.
The live audience for these Tuesday outings is solely the press. Once Mrs Lam has finished, she allows a Q&A moment. There is jostling to ask questions, knowing only a few will be allowed. These are quickly dealt with and that is that. Mrs Lam and her team turn to leave, the obfuscation of her answers hanging in the air. The press shout, scream, further questions. These are unanswered as she walks away, her back the final glimpse we see.
Over these many weeks, Hong Kong has ostensibly been rudderless, without a working government. The government suspended its decision-making abilities, including the all-necessary exploration of compromise, weeks ago. Beijing, or the imagined opinions of Beijing, has influenced and/or directed this political crisis. Meanwhile - in newspaper editorials, during business forums, advice from academics, heard at legislators’ press conferences and in conversations between shop staff and their customers - Mrs Lam is exhorted to start talking to the protesters and with the “the opposition”. A weakness of Mrs Lam is the unfortunate tendency to label anyone or any organisation that does not agree with her as “the opposition”, a category that she rarely engages with. Consequently, her view of Hong Kong is mirrored in her own reflection – a dangerous position for any politician.
As I write this, Carrie Lam says she is now ready for “dialogue”. (When you are detached, you can make that sort of arbitrary call, oblivious to timing or strategy). She is supposedly putting an advisory group together to “set up a platform for dialogue”. My eyes glazed over when I read the possible attendees: the same old types who always speak to the government and the bureaucracy, to “give (too often, self-interested) advice”.
Nah – if you really want to get a dialogue started, talk to those that have been honourable during this entire miserable political crisis: the social workers, the teachers, the medical workers, members of the press, and those few legislators - fully exposed to tear gas and projectiles - that stood between the police and protesters pleading tolerance. They will give you honest, helpful advice. From such frank discussions, we (and it is we!) might find a road to navigate the anger and distrust that the public has towards the government.
The now familiar protesters’ slogan of “Free Hong Kong” is not a demand for independence from the mainland. It is a demand for a re-commitment to the principles of “one country, two systems” whereby Hong Kong reestablishes its “high degree of autonomy”. It also embodies, as promised in the Basic Law, a commitment to fairer political representation in the Legislative Council, particularly the abolition of functional constituencies. These are the sort of specific stepping-stone commitments to reform that will lead forward.
Mrs Lam, if you are skeptical: buy yourself a black T-shirt, black lycra leggings and cover
your face (a blue medical facemask is sufficient). Then, join one of the peaceful rallies or protests, no-one will recognize you, and chat with those you meet. Trust me, you’ll learn something – and, besides, the camaraderie is uplifting.
This opinion piece was originally published in Ming Pao Weekly on 30 August 2019. Translated into Chinese from the English by Aulina Chan.