The news that two influential members of the US Republican Party, Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Chris Smith, the respective chair and co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, intended to nominate Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Alex Chow Yong-kang for the Nobel Peace Prize came as a surprise.
My initial reaction was one of disbelief. It was a reaction shared by almost everyone I know, regardless of political persuasion. However, as is so sadly to be expected, this unusual source of unity had to be dismissed.
The fact is, and certainly in private, the news of the trio’s nomination has not been greeted with anywhere near universal fanfare in pro-democracy circles. The three aspiring politicians are still that: aspiring.
There are also many who whisper that Joshua, the figurehead for the political activism that the trio represent, has a righteous streak that refuses to heed the wisdom and experience of those who have learned that democracy is an ideal, but democratic politics remains the art of the possible.
There are also the worrying signs that Nathan Law, regarded by many as the more considered and intellectual of the trio, is a spent force. Many pointed to his beaten demeanour since prison, and truth be told he has been surprisingly quiet of late. When forced into the spotlight it is not only the establishment journalists who have noted the absence of a certain spark.
In a manner Law has come to represent the best of this city’s youth: a well-mannered, educated and moderate young man forced to the fringe in pursuit not only of an ideal, but to uphold in spirit a promise made by Beijing and guaranteed, lest we forget, by the United Kingdom.
“You will never walk alone,” was the promise former Prime Minister John Major proclaimed to the people of Hong Kong. His daughter-in-law is Hong Kong born, and her father continues to live here, which is indicative of the depth of what one political researcher in his submission to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee termed a betrayal.
The way Law has been broken by the walls, both literal and metaphorical, erected around him by both officialdom and an increasingly rabid pro-establishment minority mirrors the situation many in Hong Kong of a more liberal and democratic leaning have experienced. Hope has been bludgeoned out of civil society not by local nativism, but by a nationalistic establishment that refuses to countenance any form of opposition.
Senator Rubio and the international community at large would also do well to note that the public spirit of defiance the trio supposedly represent, and the political party they founded, Demosistos, are no longer representative of Hong Kong’s youth. This is plain to anyone who regularly spends time at Hong Kong’s university campuses or attends school reunions. The mood has changed.
Hope for genuine reform has evaporated, as has the belief that Beijing is even capable of listening to the word on the street. The strong words and actions that had once fired up the imagination of the young in 2012 no longer resonant in this new climate.
“When all the chips are down, there are only two things one can do: gamble everything, or throw in the cards.” In his observations of another highly symbolic trial, Vaclav Havel was right. What is easy to overlook is the very next paragraph of his essay.
He describes meeting a friend and film director on Karmelitska Street, who though sympathetic and wishing for reform just did not want to know what we all know to be important. “Apart from that, what else are you up to?” he asks Havel. This is an important point: when the chips are down the majority throw in the cards.
Only the pan-democrats, having prematurely retired a generation of leadership, seem still to think obstructive activism rather than constructive politics is what the people want. By playing to what they did not understand but what they imagined to be a new, youthful and vigorous force in local politics, the pan-democrats have (yet again) let themselves and their electorate down.
By describing Wong, Law and Chow as “champions of peace and freedom and Hong Kong’s entire pro-democracy movement” Rubio and Smith do a great discourtesy to the wide spectrum of actors that constitutes Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. More importantly, their ignorance also plays into the hands of the establishment.
According to the official narrative, the 2014 protests were an illegal and violent act planned and supported by foreign agents that threatens national unity. It is a line that has been used many times before by Beijing, most notably following the events of June 1989 when the party responded not with self-reflection in seeking a cause, but by establishing a new narrative.
Rubio and Smith, in focusing on Wong, Law and Chow are reinforcing the official narrative.
According to pro-establishment lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, from the Business and Professionals Alliance:
“The nomination could create more obstacles in Hong Kong’s progress towards democracy, because it could reinforce Beijing’s perception that foreign forces were involved in the Occupy movement.”
She is right. Though it is also worth noting her statement does by implication contradict the official claim made by former Chief Executive CY Leung and Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee that there was concrete “evidence” of foreign powers being behind the 2014 protest — evidence that both promised they would make public.
By refusing to open even the possibility of any serious dialogue in 2014, Beijing and the Hong Kong administration refused to acknowledge reasonable and justifiable concerns about the nature of constitutional reform and the way the city’s unique social and cultural identity were being undermined. These were concerns that were shared by a significant majority of Hong Kong people, whether or not they supported the protests.
For the establishment, the protests and what they represent — a desire to preserve Hong Kong as an open and liberal city, and to evolve, as promised, a more democratic system of political representation — became tarnished by the same brush.
As a stated act of civil disobedience, the 2014 Occupy protest was a deliberately illegal act which the government knew would happen and for which they might prepare, a point certainly not lost on the Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, Dr Benny Tai and Dr Chan Kin-man when they proposed the idea a year before.
Yet all mention of the Occupy protest in any establishment paper prefixes it as “illegal”, with the implication being it was wrong. The emotional and psychological impact of this in a society taught that for every question there is one correct answer should not be overlooked.
A protest that caught both the world’s attention and admiration for its peaceful, and often innocent nature, has been rebranded and officially recorded and remember as disorderly and violent. This new narrative was enacted on order as pro-establishment associations, including some triad groups, were mobilised and used not just to intimidate protesters, but to bring an aggressive tension to what was a peaceful protest. Thus, to the casual observer this new narrative seems very plausible.
And so too are the conspiracies of foreign involvement. “Clearly,” as one commentator wrote recently, “the United States is keen on exporting its brand of democracy. Yale professor Amy Chua in her book World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability chastised this American self-righteousness.”
A spirit of distrust and division has been fostered and continually stoked. This nomination, whether well-meant or a cynical attempt to undermine Beijing by raising awareness of the issue of Hong Kong, has only added fuel to a fire that obscures from most a more informed, considered and nuanced understanding of the situation Hong Kong is facing, and the best way we might move forward.
Wong, Law and Chow do not deserve to be nominated. They did not conceive the use of civil disobedience as a means of advancing stalled discussions on democratic reform in 2014. Joshua might be the face of the protest movement, but unlike other Peace Prize winners he yet to demonstrate either the poise, charisma or political acumen required to be a successful leader.
Neither can it be said that the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets in protest that Sunday, September 28th, did so on their call. The police response, which certainly appeared at the time to be both disproportionate and unnecessarily aggressive given the city’s history of peaceful protest, was arguably as much a factor in drawing people on to the streets in solidarity.
Since 2014 much of the youth support has dissipated. Demosisto may be a significant force for the many non-mainstream parties advocating “self-determination” for Hong Kong, but they are vying for the attentions of an increasing minority willing to gamble everything for their conscience.
The decision to disqualify Agnes Chow from standing for election — a young lady who in my opinion is more eloquent and impressive a character than the three nominated — has rightly drawn considerable condemnation. However, wide condemnation should not be confused with active support.
While I have great admiration for Joshua, Nathan and Alex for their drive, determination and the experience they have acquired at such a young age, it is wrong that they become the focus of any anti-establishment position. The democratic movement and the liberal ideal, and the desire to protect freedom of conscience, a free press and the rule of law, is far greater than the narrow agenda of Demosisto; and the actions open to the people of Hong Kong, personal, institutional and indeed political should not be confined by the specific kind of political activism that these three young men represent.
If Senator Rubio wanted to make a point, and draw attention to the challenges Hong Kong people and our institutions face when forced to integrate into an authoritarian system — challenges relevant to the international community that will too face the prospect of engaging with an increasingly assertive Peoples Republic of China — he would have been better off nominating the Hong Kong people.
Just as deserving of recognition as Wong, Law and Chow are the many Hong Kong judges and lawyers who cling firmly to the precepts of a common law system and the rule of law; the many journalists and booksellers who, despite intimidation, continue to tell the truth as they see it; and the many people from many walks of life who refuse to love a country because they are told they must.