It may be hard for many young, idealistic protesters to see it, but Beijing’s tried and trusted carrot-and-stick approach to managing unrest is being deployed with greater determination in Hong Kong. Zhang Xiaoming’s visit to Shenzhen on Wednesday is clearly the start of a more hands-on approach by the central government. This gives hope, in our view, for a solution to the crisis gripping the city.
It might not be easy to grasp, but the HKMAO Director’s guidance to “The 500” on Wednesday is just what the city needs. It was inevitable that he would brandish a stick, leaving open the option of a forceful intervention by mainland security forces in order to end the protests. But he also held out a carrot for the first time. And it was a big one.
It may have been couched in tough-love language, but Zhang addressed one of the protesters’ key demands: for a commission of enquiry into the way the police have handled the protests. Beijing will only look at this once the protests cease, he said. But, coming at the same time as a former deputy commissioner was called out of retirement to handle the protests, the message could not have been clearer: We hear you.
The offer has been rejected by some of the protesters’ more charismatic figures, but that doesn’t matter right now. More important is that attitudes appear to have shifted in Beijing. There seems to be a recognition that the protesters’ complaints have at least some legitimacy. Moreover, it is obvious that, despite the smiles in front of the cameras, Beijing is not happy with the pro-establishment camp. The lack of unity among the city’s elite undoubtedly contributed to the current mess, and they are being instructed to get into line. Why else would the property tycoons be issuing a belated condemnation of the protests? Where were they when Carrie Lam really needed them? The days of having their cake and eating it are over, and not a moment too soon.
The question is what next. Two columnists for SCMP have held out some important questions for Beijing to consider. The paper’s executive editor, Chow Chung Yan, has stuck his neck out to say that the current law-enforcement approach is not working and needs to be reconsidered. Arresting protesters is wearing out the police force, will soon wear out the judiciary, and will inevitably wear out the prison service. Hong Kong is not equipped to deal with political unrest on this scale. What is needed is a political solution, not a rule-of-law solution.
What might that political solution involve? Hedge fund manager Cheang Cheng Hye reckons the current crisis is a golden opportunity to push through the political reform package that sparked all of this. Not the extradition bill. The one back in 2014 that led to Occupy Central. His idea is to get a pathway to universal suffrage in place, starting with one man, one vote – for preselected candidates. At the same time, commentators like Lawrence Lau are stating the obvious, but in a thoughtful, measured way: get cracking on fixing the social discontent by improving people’s livelihoods.
Smart but inexperienced kids like Joshua Wong and Nathan Law might not seize the opportunity, preferring to fan the flames further by having tea at the US Consulate. But that is fine. All Hong Kong needs now is a direction. And a carrot. Whether voices like Chow’s, Cheang’s and Lau’s are listened to remains to be seen. There will likely be more. This city is not short of creative minds. The important part is that the central government is listening and prepared to work in finding longer-term solutions to the underlying causes of the crisis.