In Hong Kong, how much is too little?

It is a depressing day today in Hong Kong. The incessant September rains have been dampening moods and hampering travel, but they are not dousing the flames of the protest movement. Judging from widespread reaction to CE Carrie Lam’s speech yesterday, and her press conference today, it seems most protesters are unlikely to respond in a constructive way to the government’s decision to accede to the first of their five demands by withdrawing the Extradition Bill. 

Rather, despite much media focus on the demand for an independent police enquiry, it looks increasingly like the only way the protests might end is if Hong Kong has an electoral system that allows a candidate to be elected on a platform of de facto independence, or “free elections”, as one young, charismatic student leader calls them. That isn’t likely to happen before 2047, unless China undergoes a societal change that is unimaginable at present. And so, even though some kind of road to reconciliation is starting to be laid by the government, it is likely to be a long walk to social harmony in Hong Kong.

This is not to judge right or wrong here; just to form an analysis. It is not easy to do, because there are no clear leaders of the protest movement. It is hard to see how the protests might be brought to an end because they have no structure and therefore no institutions that can be negotiated with. Reaction to Lam’s announcement yesterday has laid this starkly bare. Whomever appears in front of journalists at any given moment could decide what the protesters’ policy of the day is. The government has decided, therefore, that the only way forward is to start a large-scale effort of reaching out to every corner of society and listening to their grievances. 

Protesters could be forgiven for saying they have heard this one before. Still, without anything else to go on besides speculation of motives and tactics, this is what any cogent analysis must work with. It’s easy to see what the protesters are likely to do next. They have their mission. It’s more instructive to think about what the government is likely to do next, because it appears now to have a roadmap.

A vast public outreach program will take a long time to get under way, let alone set benchmarks for success. An obvious short-term target would be to launch some kind of dialogue through some kind of wider public forum before the year-end District Council elections. Progress is needed before next year’s Legislative Council elections. But beyond that? China has a president with no term limits. Beijing has no milestones to watch out for, despite what some commentators think is an obsession with celebrating historical events. And 2047 is a long way off. This could drag on for many years.

Nevertheless, potential scenarios are worth examining, with the obvious caveat that this is a fast-changing situation. 

Aside from the most likely prediction, which is that the protests continue in large numbers, that extremists continue to wage violence against police and other government institutions, that police officers’ nerves continue to be frayed, and that acts of thuggery on both sides become more frequent, it seems likely that the government is going to follow up on the four points announced by Lam. She has a machine at Tamar that can be rolled into action.

TOC in place

From the government’s position, there is now more than a roadmap, in fact: there is a table of contents to discuss. The protesters’ demands are down to four. The government has four slogans of their own to chant in return. If they had hired Edelman or Saatchi to vet these before announcing them, the “four actions”, as Lam calls them, might have become more memorable already, but still, they have something to use. Four on four. 

She may have read them out in the style of a North Korean news presenter, but Lam’s speech is hard to fault for detail. Timing and motives are being scrutinized, but the government has laid out its objectives. In English, as well. 

The Four Actions were likely the product of intense debate behind the scenes. Yes, that’s right, debate in Beijing. Anyone who still thinks that the Communist Party is run by the same goons who ran Ukraine during the Orange Revolution needs to read The Party by Richard McGregor, The Party Line by Doug Young, Deng Xiaoping by Ezra Vogel, China’s Search for Security by Andrew Nathan, or even The Tiananmen Papers by Zhang Liang. Those are basic texts to help understand how diverse policymaking is run in Zhongnanhai, despite being a one-party state. 

This is necessary because, regardless of one’s political beliefs in the virtues or vices of Communism or Western-styled Liberalism, any analysis of Hong Kong’s future must begin with an understanding of how China’s leadership works, even if their thinking is sometimes hard to grasp. 

Just getting the basics right will help. For instance, there is a Central Party School. Cadres are well-trained in Western-oriented political science. The Central Committee is a bigger tent than it appears. The Tuanpai, Shanghai, and Princeling factions exist. Most importantly for Hong Kong, dozens, if not hundreds, of think-tanks are staffed by academics who are paid to advise the government outside of the normal bureaucratic channels. The Liaison Office is not the only voice in the room.

The central government might have been surprised by the outbreak of these protests, and by their intensity and duration. The Leading Group on Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, chaired by Vice Premier Han Zheng, might be feeling the stones as they cross the river, searching for solutions that will stick. China’s senior leadership has a large country to run, not to mention a trade war to cope with. But to think that they don’t have all hands on deck now to deal with the crisis gripping Hong Kong would be to assume that they don’t cherish political order. 

Despite Lam’s claims of independence, the Four Actions suggest that the government’s actions are being guided in Beijing by pragmatists, rather than ideologues. This should not be too surprising: look at what President Xi Jinping told a Party School forum yesterday. While warning about the challenge to China from what is happening in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, he made it clear: Don’t budge on principles, but be flexible in responding to strategic challenges.

Ready, aim …

This realization should be cause for relief. Because they are the work of pragmatists, the Four Actions should not be seen as non-negotiables, unlike matters that touch on issues of sovereignty. They appear to be wide goalposts rather than archery targets. All of these demands are addressable. With time.

The government has a tough job ahead of it, however, getting started on these Four Actions. The most obvious challenge is that, less than 24 hours later, not even this writer could remember exactly what they are. (The transcript of Lam’s speech is available on SCMP.) 

In any case, basically, the Four Actions come down to this: the government is going to stop being so aloof and arrogant, and start listening more carefully, but it has to be measured and thorough in coming up with solutions that address not only the Five Four Demands, but the protests’ underlying causes as well.

What this suggests is that the government is groping toward a way of addressing society’s discontent without making rash decisions – like the 2003 decision to flood Hong Kong with mainland tourists – that will cause new problems later on. It further suggests that practical steps, such as appointing distinguished overseas legal figures to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, will be rolled out with a sense of urgency, even though the other, more sensitive of the Five Four Demands might take longer.

Demand #2 has top priority to be addressed, in a way that is hard to quibble with. First, the government will likely soon launch the newly staffed IPCC on an investigation of alleged police brutality, as well as what happened in the Yuen Long triad incident. If that fails to be seen as impartial, despite bringing in international members, the government can go to the next step and appoint a judge. This is not going to break the house. 

Each of these steps would take time, and would gradually take the wind out of the protests’ sails by showing that progress is being made. The aim would likely be to get Four down to Three, ASAP, then Three down to Two within a few months, then Two down to One within a few months after that, and then figure out a longer-term plan for One.

Next up would be Demand #4, which is, in basketball terms, a layup, even though Lam is making it sound like a Lebron James alley-oop. Categorizing the protests as riots is a technical legal issue. This is a bone that can be tossed out when some momentum is needed again. It will likely be an easy win for the government.

Demand #3, granting amnesty for protesters arrested, is also not only a matter of law, whatever Lam might say. But action on this will likely be held back for awhile, used as a carrot to get protesters to do some self-policing, and will certainly need to wait for the IPCC’s report. Again, despite Lam’s apparent bureaucratic mindset in her response, this is not insurmountable. It is the art of politics. But it will take time.

Even Demand #5 is NOT non-negotiable. It just won’t happen on Joshua Wong’s timetable. The government will probably put this at the center of its outreach efforts from, like, yesterday, probing for a way to get the stalled political-reform process going again. Keep in mind that Occupy Central happened on Xi Jinping’s first watch. It’s a different, more confident national leadership team now. Although there is simply no way a young radical who cannot take an oath properly is going to be elected to the CE position, there are moderates who might have a chance in a more open election process than is currently in place. Again, progress begets confidence. 

This political-discussion process will also likely be wrapped in candy, with the government launching an economic-restructuring process at the same time. Signposts to look for as progress include Hong Kong’s favorite billionaire spending less time here and more time in, say, the U.K. They have good pubs there.

Whether any of this works in a way that lowers the temperature of the protests remains to be seen. At the moment, it doesn’t look hopeful. But at least there is a direction. Stay tuned.

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